Arizona high court upholds core of public financing for state campaigns

Friday, June 16, 2000

PHOENIX — The state Supreme Court today upheld the core of Arizona’s voluntary system for public financing of state election campaigns.

The court agreed with a lower court that part of the implementation process was unconstitutional but said that part could be set aside, leaving the rest of the system intact.

The Clean Elections system, approved by voters in 1998, provides participating candidates with state funding. It also reduces the maximum amounts of contributions which non-participating candidates can accept.

The Arizona Supreme Court’s 3-2 ruling came on the state’s appeal of a lower court’s ruling that declared the entire system unconstitutional.

Judge Robert D. Myers of Maricopa County Superior Court ruled Feb. 14 that the 1998 ballot measure unconstitutionally expanded the duties of a judicial nominating commission to include helping pick members of a new commission that oversees the Clean Elections system.

The state high court upheld that part of Myers’ ruling but not his finding that the entire law had to be overturned.

Myers said he could not presume voters would have approved it without some provision to ensure that the financing system “is insulated from partisan considerations.”

The state high court said the system would still function without the commission to suggest panels of nominees for selection by various state officials.

The state officials still could make the necessary appointments without having nominees chosen for their consideration, with rotating turns by political party and the existing condition that appointees be committed to overseeing the system in an honest and impartial way, the court said.

That still would be a rational system that voters could have approved, and all doubts must be resolved in favor of keeping intact portions that can stand on their own, said the majority opinion written by Justice Frederick J. Martone.

He was joined in the majority by Justices Ruth V. McGregor and Court of Appeals Judge Noel A. Fidel.

Justice Stanley G. Feldman and Court of Appeals Judge William E. Druke agreed with part of the majority’s ruling and disagreed on others.

Opponents have filed a separate challenge in federal court in Phoenix. That lawsuit, which is still pending, contends the system’s use of mandatory court-fine surcharges and new fees for commercial lobbyists is an unconstitutional infringement of free-speech rights. The system’s other principal funding source is donations eligible for state income tax credits.

The federal challenge is not expected to be argued before a judge until August or September.

Because the state appealed Myers’ ruling, the law has remained in effect and an appointed commission has continued working to implement it.

The state high court heard arguments on March 14.

Separate appeals to uphold the system were filed by Attorney General Janet Napolitano and an advocacy group, the Clean Elections Institute. They argued that voters, in approving the ballot measure, had the ability to add to the nominating commission’s duties.

Continued uncertainty about the system’s legality could make it impossible for some candidates to run and could put others at a disadvantage against candidates who rely on traditional fund raising, the institute’s appeal had said in urging the court to decide the issue.

State candidates’ participation in the new system has been minimal, some due to opposition to it and others due to uncertainty about its legal status and questions about how it would be implemented.

The law allows candidates who gather enough $5 contributions from voters to qualify for up to $1 million in state money, with the number of qualifying contributions required and the amount of money available depending on the office sought.

Two Democratic legislative hopefuls on June 2 became the first candidates to receive money, each receiving $10,000 for their respective primary races. Republicans generally have shunned the new system.

Supporters of the 1998 ballot measure said providing public funding of candidates would reduce the influence of special interests and allow non-wealthy candidates to run and have a realistic shot at winning.

Opponents argued that candidates should raise their own money and that the system could end up relying on tax dollars if other revenue sources fell short.