High court could strike down Ariz. campaign finance law
Justices seem skeptical of rule
WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court appeared poised yesterday to strike down a provision of a campaign financing system in Arizona that gives extra cash to publicly funded candidates who face privately funded rivals and independent groups.
Such a decision would be another blow to public campaign financing, once thought of as an antidote to the corrupting influence of money in politics. President Obama has been the most prominent example of politicians who have abandoned public financing because they can raise far more money privately.
The justices heard arguments in a challenge to the Arizona system that gives candidates who opt for public financing up to two times their base amount when they are outspent by privately funded rivals or targeted by independent group spending.
The court’s conservative-leaning justices, who have issued a string of decisions upending campaign finance laws in the past five years, appeared skeptical of the Arizona law because, in their view, it is designed to level the playing field for all candidates. The court has said such leveling often runs afoul of the First Amendment.
Among the recent rulings were last year’s Citizens United decision that removed most limits on election spending by corporations and organized labor, and a 2008 decision that voided the federal “millionaire’s amendment’’ to increase contribution limits for congressional candidates facing wealthy opponents. Both decisions were ideologically split, 5-to-4 votes in which the conservative justices prevailed.
Yesterday, several justices seized on the contention that the law discourages candidates and independent groups from spending money when they know it will result in more money going to the candidate they oppose.
“Just as a common-sense matter, if I’m someone with the capacity and will to make an independent expenditure, why don’t I think twice?’’ Justice Anthony Kennedy asked.
Bradley S. Phillips, the Los Angeles-based lawyer defending the law, said it encourages more competition by ensuring that publicly funded candidates have the chance to run credible races.
Phillips said the system is strictly voluntary. Candidates decide whether to take public funds, and if so, they agree not to raise any private money.
William Maurer, the Seattle-based lawyer for the challengers, said elections are a “zero-sum game’’ and that what benefits one candidate harms the opponent. Tying disbursements of campaign funds to the activities of privately funded candidates means “each time they speak, the more work that they do, the more their opponents benefit,’’ Maurer said.
The law was enacted by voters in the aftermath of a public corruption scandal in Arizona in the 1990s.
Four other states, Maine, New Mexico, North Carolina, and Wisconsin, have similar “trigger’’ provisions that affect some political races, and could be vulnerable if the Supreme Court strikes down the Arizona provision. Another state, Connecticut, changed its law to eliminate its trigger after a federal appeals court struck it down.
Los Angeles and New York are among big cities that also provide public money to candidates.
There appeared to be five votes to rule against the Arizona law. A decision is expected by summer.
Justice Samuel Alito seemed to suggest that giving a publicly funded candidate campaign money in one lump sum — so that the amount of money does not depend on an opponent’s campaign activity — could resolve the potential First Amendment problems in Arizona’s law.
In other action:
■ The court rejected an appeal from a Georgia death row inmate who was given a rare chance to argue his innocence but failed to convince a federal judge that he was wrongly convicted of the 1989 murder of a Savannah police officer.
The decision clears the way for state officials to move forward with Troy Davis’s execution, but problems with the state’s supply of a key lethal injection drug put the timing in doubt. Federal regulators this month seized the entire stockpile of the drug, sodium thiopental, amid questions about how the state obtained it. The move effectively put all executions in Georgia on hold.
The court’s rejection of the appeal is the most stinging setback yet for Davis, who has become a cause célèbre for the international antideath penalty movement amid claims that he wasn’t the one who killed off-duty Savannah police officer Mark MacPhail — and that he had evidence to prove it.
■ The justices said they will decide whether a teacher at a church-run school is a religious or secular worker when it comes to the Americans with Disabilities Act. The justices agreed to hear an appeal from Hosanna-Tabor Evangelical Lutheran Church and School of Redford, Mich.
Cheryl Perich, a teacher and commissioned minister, got sick in 2004 but tried to return to work from disability leave despite being diagnosed with narcolepsy. She taught third and fourth graders. The school said she couldn’t return because it had hired a substitute.