Decision: McComish v. Bennett

The Supreme Court today reaffirmed the constitutionality of public financing as a means of fighting political corruption in the case Arizona Free Enterprise v. Bennett (also known as McComish v. Bennett), while striking down one mechanism used in Arizona's program.  

Read the opinion here. Read highlights from Justice Kagan's dissent.

Organization Reactions | Elections Officials | Other Comments | Editorials | News Stories | Background

Organization Reactions

  • Statement from Public Campaign: "The five-vote big-money majority on the Court has spoken again in favor of wealthy special interests," said Nick Nyhart, president and CEO of Public Campaign. "Fortunately, the Court has left room for small-donor driven systems like the Fair Elections Now Act."

  • Statement from Common Cause: "The Court's misguided ruling affects only one mechanism of public financing, and there are numerous ways to fix it," said Common Cause President Bob Edgar.  "Today, in the wake of Citizens United, it is more critical than ever that we change the way we pay for our elections by moving to a small donor system that gives the public a voice back in our government. Nothing short of our democracy is at stake."
  • Statement from Democracy 21:  "As wrong as the Court's decision today is, however, it does not cast any doubt on the continued viability or constitutionality of a number of other existing public financing systems that do not include "trigger funds" or similar provisions."

  • Statement from League of Women Voters: "Unfortunately today, we see another poorly reasoned decision by the Supreme Court on campaign finance, one that is untethered to the Constitution. While the McComish decision is another blow by this Court against clean elections, public financing itself has not been put in jeopardy."

  • Statement from Justice at Stake: "Today's ruling is disappointing, but not fatal for America's courts. State judicial elections are drowning in special-interest spending. Properly crafted public financing laws are more critical than ever, so that judges do not have to dial for dollars from major donors who may appear before them in court.
  • Statement from the Center for Competitive Politics (opponents of Clean Elections): "Today, the Supreme Court issued a ruling in Arizona Free Enterprise Club's Freedom Club PAC et al. v Bennett (also known as McComish v. Bennett) striking down key provisions of the Arizona Clean Elections Act (ACEA)."

  • Statement from the Institute for Justice (opponents of Clean Elections): "In a victory for free speech and political participation, today the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the "matching funds" provision of Arizona's so-called "Clean Elections" Act is unconstitutional."
  • Statement from the Campaign Finance Institute: "The decision did not strike down public financing, per se. It struck down a provision that gave a participating candidate extra public money to respond to a high spending opponent or independent spending."

  • Statement from the Brennan Center: "After the Court's ruling today, one key fact is clear. Public financing remains Constitutionally strong. The Court recognized public funding can 'further significant governmental interest[s], such as the state interest in preventing corruption.' These voluntary systems strengthen democracy. The Brennan Center will continue to fight for strong laws."
  • Statement from Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington: "Yet again, the Roberts Court has issued another disastrous campaign finance decision. Starting with Citizens United, Chief Justice Roberts and his conservative colleagues have been systematically dismantling our nation's campaign finance laws, ensuring that only the richest Americans will have a say in the political process."
  • Statement from Public Citizen: "Those who brought the case against Arizona's public financing program had hoped the Supreme Court would invalidate public financing itself, but the justices refused."
  • Statement from People for the American Way: "This decision, based on an upside-down interpretation of the First Amendment, takes away the right of Arizonans not only to ensure a modicum of integrity and fairness in their elections but to promote more political speech. The Court has thus ensured that the wealthiest can continue to pay for outsized political influence and maintain their speech advantages."

  • Statement from The Campaign Legal Center: "The Court's hostility towards legislative efforts to protect our elections from the corrupting effects of big money politics is deeply disturbing and deeply anti-democratic."
  • Statement from the Main Street Alliance: "The silver lining is that the decision leaves the basic structure of public financing systems intact, reaffirming that small dollar public financing laws are a legitimate way to combat corruption and promote free speech."

Justice Elena Kagan's Dissent

  • In her dissent, Justice Elena Kagan writes: "So they are making a novel argument: that Arizona violated their First Amendment rights by disbursing funds to other speakers even though they could have received (but chose to spurn) the same financial assistance. Some people might call that chutzpah."

  • Also from Justice Kagan: "If an ordinary citizen, without the hindrance of a law degree, thought this result an upending of First Amendment values, he would be correct."

  • And more from Justice Kagan: "Pretend you are financing your campaign through private donations. Would you prefer that your opponent receive a guaranteed, upfront payment of $150,000, or that he receive only $50,000, with the possibility—a possibility that you mostly get to control—of collecting another $100,000 somewhere down the road? Me too."

Elected Officials

  • Statement from Rep. Michael Michaud (D-Maine): "I believe it's important to find a way forward that preserves our state's current system, and I applaud the Maine Legislature for planning ahead and taking steps to comply with today's decision."

  • Statement from Rep. Raul Grijalva (D-Ariz.): "While the court majority described this as a matter of free speech, we should talk about the real issue: corporate control of the political process. Working people's voices continue to be drowned out by well financed corporations with expert marketing strategies."

Editorials

  • USA Today: "So the big news from Monday's ruling wasn't that the Arizona law was struck down, but that the majority said it had no interest in killing public financing altogether. For anyone fed up with government going to the highest bidder, that's reassuring."
  • New York Times: "The court turns the First Amendment on its head. It denies the actual effect of the Arizona law, which is not to limit spending but to increase it with public funds. The state program expands political speech by giving all candidates, not just the wealthy, a chance to run — while allowing privately financed candidates to spend as much as they want."

Other Comments

  • Zephyr Teachout, Fordhamn University School of Law and Public Campaign Action Fund Board Member: "Perhaps the most important part of the McComish opinion is what it doesn't do. It struck down public disbursements that are triggered by another candidate's spending, or by another interest group's spending. But it did not touch public financing generally, and did not touch automatic matching funds." Other opinions by William Maurer, Rick Hasen, and Guy-Uriel Charles are also available from the New York Times.

  • Heather Gerken, Yale Law School: "Why so much heat? It may be a sign of a nascent rivalry between Chief Justice Roberts and Kagan. But I think it also has to do with the state of campaign finance doctrine. What we are witnessing is not a doctrinal framework developing and moving toward a shared middle ground. What we are witnessing is a doctrinal death match between two incompatible world views. The stakes are high, and so is the rhetoric."

  • Rick Hasen, UC Irvine School of Law: "Yet today's decision brings three pieces of unexpected good news to those of us who believe that reasonable campaign finance regulation is not only constitutional, but essential to prevent corruption and ensure fairness in our democracy."

News Stories

Background

  • See our collection of Amici briefs filed in the case in support of the Arizona Clean Elections system.
  • Clean Elections has opened the door for candidates in several states to run for office who might not otherwise be able to. Check out our interviews with many of these Clean Elections lawmakers.