US Supreme Court action on Arizona's Clean Elections law

McComish v Bennett is an Arizona case in which the plaintiffs sued to overturn the matching funds system on First Amendment grounds. Maine faced a similar challenge brought by the National Right to Life groups in the late 1990's. In 2000, our matching funds system was upheld by both the District Court and the First Circuit Court of Appeals. The U.S. Supreme Court refused to hear an appeal.

In this case, the District Court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs and overturned matching funds, but the state appealed the decision, and the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed the decision. The First and Ninth Circuits are in agreement that these very similar matching funds programs are constitutional.

In June 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court then took the highly unusual step of enjoining the matching funds program on the request of the plaintiffs. Before even agreeing to hear an appeal of McComish v Bennett, the Court blocked payment of matching funds in the primary election that was then underway. Arizona's election, with many, many candidates already qualified for Clean Election funding, was thrown into a tailspin.

MCCE's Alison Smith reacts to US Supreme Court decision to block Arizona law - Listen on MPBN (6/10/2010)

Meanwhile, a similar challenge to a Clean Elections matching funds system in Connecticut ended with the Second Circuit Court of Appeals overturning that part of Connecticut's law. With the fight over matching funds intensifying, in February, 2011, MCCE filed an amicus brief in the Arizona case.

On March 28, 2011, the U.S. Supreme Court heard oral arguments. Read MCCE Board Member Jesse Graham's first-hand account of the oral argument before the Supreme Court

On June 27, 2011, by a vote of 5-4, the high court rejected the matching fund portion of Arizona's Clean Elections law. The decision is disappointing, but not unexpected. The Roberts Court - the court that brought us the infamous Citizens United decision - is continuing its aggressive reshaping of campaign finance laws. Read MCCE's Press Release on the decision.

This is not the end of public funding! In fact, the Court specifically affirms the basic constitutionality of public financing of elections. The ruling only affects the matching fund schemes that use spending by candidates or independent expenditures to trigger additional funding to participating candidates.

Anticipating that the Court would issue an opinion in the Arizona case in late June, the Maine Legislature passed LD 848, a resolve which provides a public process and a timeline to study the impact of the ruling and adjust our system before the 2012 elections. In August, 2011, MCCE submitted comments to the Ethics Commission on Post-McComish changes to Maine law. Today, MCCE is working with a broad group of stakeholders to recommend adjustments to the Clean Election Act that strengthen the program and are consistent with its intent before next year's elections.