Conn. public-financing system survives free-speech challenge
HARTFORD, Conn. — A federal judge has dismissed part of a challenge to
Connecticut's new public campaign-financing law, but has agreed to hear claims
that the law is unfair to minor party and petitioning candidates.
U.S. District Judge Stefan Underhill said the plaintiffs did not prove that
part of the law concerning matching funds was unconstitutional. The plaintiffs
include the state's Green and Libertarian parties and the Connecticut ACLU.
Under the voluntary public-financing system, which took effect for 2008
elections, a participant can get additional money if his or her opponent is not
a participant and spends beyond the public-financing limits. The participating
candidate can also obtain more public funding if an independent group, such as
the Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, exceeds the public program's spending
The plaintiffs claimed that the possibility of the participating candidate
getting more public funds would discourage the non-participant from
participating, essentially violating his free-speech rights.
But Underhill disagreed. In his March 20 ruling in
Party v. Garfield, Underhill said the provision did not stymie anyone's
First Amendment rights.
A call seeking comment with the Green Party and American Civil Liberties
Union was not returned in time for this story.
Deborah Goldberg, democracy project director at the Brennan Center for
Justice in New York, said on March 21 that Underhill set an important precedent
for other states, such as Maine, Arizona, North Carolina and New Mexico, that
have some type of public-financing systems.
“Most of the other states have these type of matching-funds provisions,” she
said. “We're very concerned about upholding the precedents that sustain these
Underhill did determine that the plaintiffs have adequately alleged that
Connecticut's public-funding system includes “unfair and unnecessary burdens” on
certain candidates, such as minor parties. He said he would take up that matter
at the end of April.
To qualify for public funds, all candidates must raise a certain number of
contributions in $100 or less increments from individuals. But minor party and
petitioning candidates must satisfy at least two additional requirements —
obtaining signatures or having received a certain percentage of votes in the
last general election.
Petitioning candidates are those who collect signatures to get themselves onto the ballot.
The plaintiffs claim the system unfairly benefits major party candidates.
“The Connecticut legislators who drafted this law in the dead of night knew
that they were creating a system that would perpetuate two classes of political
parties that are separate and unequal,” said S. Michael DeRosa, a plaintiff in
the lawsuit, said in 2006.
Goldberg says the provision makes sense.
“There are definitely different standards,” she said. “Part of the concern
when you have a public-financing system, that you are fiscally responsible. You
don't want frivolous candidacies.”
Meanwhile, the same federal judge is considering claims from lobbyists at the
state Capitol that rules banning them from making campaign contributions are