Federal court rules Connecticut campaign finance law unconstitutional

[JURIST] A federal court ruled [opinion, PDF] Thursday that a Connecticut campaign finance law discriminated against minor party candidates in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments [text]. The state's Campaign Finance Reform Act [text], which provided public funding to candidates in elections for state offices, established a Citizens' Election Program [official website] under the supervision of the State Elections Enforcement Commission. In a lawsuit [complaint, PDF] the state's Green and Libertarian Parties, among others, sought an injunction against the program under their First Amendment right to political opportunity. Judge Stefan Underhill found that the program imposes a "severe burden on the political opportunity of minor party candidates" in violation of the First Amendment and the Fourteenth Amendment equal protection doctrine because, among other things, it:

provides participating major party candidates public financing at windfall levels..., permits major party candidates who are as equally “hopeless” as minor party candidates in many districts to become eligible for full funding without first requiring such hopeless major party candidates to make the same threshold showing of public support required of minor party candidates..., [and sets] additional qualifying criteria for minor party candidates [that] are nearly impossible to achieve.
Connecticut Attorney General Richard Blumenthal [official website] said that his office would appeal the decision [press release], arguing that the court failed to weigh the state's compelling interest in increased transparency and integrity of the political process. Blumenthal also said the law was in line with current Supreme Court precedent and that striking it down could remove safeguards against campaign finance abuse by obstructing reform efforts.

Campaign reform legislation has raised First Amendment concerns in the past. In June, the US Supreme Court ordered re-argument [JURIST report] in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission [Cornell LII backgrounder] to decide whether Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and McConnell v. Federal Election Commission [Oyez backgrounders] should be overturned in deciding the case. The case originally sought to decide if the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) [text, PDF] permits the Federal Election Commission (FEC) [official website] to regulate the release and advertising of a 90-minute documentary questioning then-Senator Hillary Clinton's (D-NY) qualifications to serve as US president. The district court held that the movie was "electioneering communication" under the statute and the appeal was brought on broad First Amendment grounds.

 

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