By Tim Keller
IJ client Steve May is, by nature, a freedom fighter. From his passionate defense of liberty as a State Representative in the Arizona Legislature, to his service in the U.S. Army, Steve May can turn just about any situation into an opportunity to protect freedom—even a trip to the Coffee Plantation.
One fateful morning, without doing anything particularly wrong, Steve May was compelled to fund not only political speech with which he disagrees, but also the campaigns of those who were running against him in the Legislature. By what means was he so coerced? He received a parking ticket.
By failing to re-feed a parking meter before time ran out, Steve May found himself caught in a wave of ?reform? rolling across the country seeking to fund political speech at public expense. As Steve May so aptly demonstrates, there is one big problem with paying for political campaigns with public dollars: citizens are not likely to consent to footing the bill.
Understanding this basic truth, the drafters of Arizona’s so-called “Clean” Elections Act included a dirty little secret, one that could be the harbinger for nationwide public campaign financing efforts. Any time a person in Arizona receives a civil or criminal fine, including any minor traffic citation, a 10-percent surcharge is added to the fine to go directly into the Clean Elections Fund. From there, it is distributed to candidates for state elective offices. The surcharge is the Act’s primary funding source, constituting nearly two-thirds of all monies collected.
Steve May immediately recognized his First Amendment rights were being trampled. Represented for free by IJ (which later handed over the case to its first state chapter), he filed a lawsuit challenging the constitutionality of the mandatory surcharges.
Regardless of what one thinks of various campaign finance reform proposals, coerced support of political campaigns strikes at the heart of our First Amendment freedoms. In their great wisdom, our Founding Fathers enshrined in our Constitution the freedom to engage in political speech—or to refrain from doing so.
This June, the Arizona Court of Appeals issued a strong ruling striking down the surcharges as unconstitutional, vindicating the rights of thousands of Arizonans. Judge Sheldon Weisberg’s opinion affirmed what all freedom-loving Americans know in their hearts—government cannot force its citizens to put their money where their mouth isn’t.
In just over three years, the Clean Elections Fund has illegally collected more than $14.8 million in surcharges. The financial impact of this decision on public financing in Arizona will result in an immediate appeal to the Arizona Supreme Court. The impact of this decision on the nationwide effort, however, could be the real story. The McCain-Feingold Act, which limits private funding of political speech, called for a study of Arizona’s scheme. There should be no doubt that campaign reformers ultimately seek to implement a program similar to Arizona’s at the federal level. Absent a method of compelling citizens to fund elections, taxpayers won’t subsidize political campaigns.
Whatever happens next, the IJ Arizona Chapter is committed to defending First Amendment rights, even if the fight takes us to the U.S. Supreme Court.
Tim Keller is a staff attorney at the Institute for Justice Arizona Chapter.