U.S. Supreme Court Urged To Overturn Public Campaign Subsidies

John Kramer
John Kramer · January 9, 2003

Washington, D.C.—In a case with national implications for free speech and campaign finance reform, the Institute for Justice today asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn Arizona’s Clean Elections Act, which forces discrete groups of citizens to subsidize politicians.

The subsidy program, which was approved narrowly by Arizona voters in a 1998 initiative, provides funding for candidates for all statewide offices while capping funding for those who choose not to accept government subsidies. Two-thirds of the funding comes from an involuntary 10 percent surcharge added to criminal and civil fines, including parking and traffic tickets. The Institute for Justice challenged the involuntary assessments as impermissible “compelled speech” under the First Amendment.

Clint Bolick, the Institute’s vice president and national director of state chapters, declared, “Arizona has joined authoritarian regimes that make political participation mandatory. We ask the Supreme Court to reaffirm the principle that in a free society, political participation must be voluntary.”

A state trial court struck down a fee on lobbyists to support the campaign subsidy fund, but upheld the surcharge. The state court of appeals invalidated the surcharge, but the decision was overturned by the Arizona Supreme Court. The Institute today filed a petition asking the U.S. Supreme Court to review that decision.

IJ represents former State Rep. Steve May, who incurred a parking ticket surcharge earmarked for candidates including his own opponents. May refused to accept campaign subsidies. The subsidies played an important role in the recent narrow election victory of Governor Janet Napolitano, who accepted subsidies and enjoyed a huge financial advantage over her opponent, Matt Salmon, who ran with voluntary contributions.

The McCain-Feingold federal campaign finance law calls for a study of the Arizona system as a model for possible future reform. Several states, including Massachusetts, Vermont, Florida, Maine and Indiana have various forms of public campaign financing programs. In the last election, 75 percent of Massachusetts voters in a nonbinding referendum called for an end to taxpayer subsidies of politicians.

Bolick declared, “Among funding priorities, politicians rank at the bottom for most people. The decision of which candidates to support—or whether to participate at all—should be left to voluntary individual choice.”