Worst Decisions #4: Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett

AFJ is counting down the 10 worst decisions of the Corporate Court's 2010-11 term. Yesterday at #5, we talked about Connick v. Thompson, which makes it easier for prosecutors to hide evidence.

Worst Decisions of the 2010-11 Corporate Court Term: #4 Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett 
Protecting the Power of Wealthy Special Interests to Buy Elections

In a 5-4 vote, the Supreme Court overturned an inventive policy that Arizona implemented in 1998 to combat corruption by reducing the influence of powerful special interests in elections. 

Arizona voters passed the Citizens Clean Election Act in 1998 in response to a state political culture that the New York Times called “an open sewer of corruption.”  Prior to the Act, two consecutive governors were removed for corruption and almost 10% of the state legislature was charged with misconduct, including a chairman of the House Judiciary Committee who was caught stuffing a gym bag with $55,000 in cash.  The Act allowed candidates who abide by strict spending limits to receive public funds for their campaigns and to receive increases in those funds to match spending by well-funded independent groups supporting their opponents or wealthy self-financing candidates.

The Supreme Court overturned the Act in an ironic interpretation of First Amendment free speech law.  The Court’s conservative majority examined a law that increased speech by providing candidates with more resources to communicate with voters and determined that it violated the First Amendment by substantially burdening privately funded candidates. 

In her dissent, Justice Kagan stated that preventing corruption following a political scandal should be deemed a compelling government interest that passes constitutional muster.

She added that the law applies equally to candidates of all viewpoints, and that what the Act’s opponents seek “is essentially a right to quash others’ speech through the prohibition of a (universally available) subsidy program.”

Arizona Free Enterprise Club’s Freedom PAC v. Bennett is number four on AFJ’s Worst Decisions of the 2010-11 Corporate Court term because the Court has closed off another avenue of reform designed to reduce the undue influence of corporate interests and wealthy candidates in political races.