Green Party of Connecticut v. Garfield: The First Amendment Blunts Reforms

July 16, 2010

If one thinks of campaign finance and pay-to-play reforms as a tool chest, Connecticut seemed to have a wide-variety of intricately designed instruments adopted in response to corruption scandals that led to the resignation of Governor Rowland. On July 13, 2010, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit issued two decisions in Green Party of Connecticut v. Garfield, however, that have considerably blunted the effectiveness of some of these devices. On the one hand, the Court upheld Connecticut’s pay-to-play ban against contributions to candidates for state offices by state contractors, prospective state contractors, and their principals, spouses and dependent children. On the other, it struck down, on First Amendment grounds, the following provisions:
  • the ban against contributions by lobbyists (and their spouses and dependent children) to candidates for state offices.
  • the ban against contractors’ and lobbyists’ soliciting contributions on behalf of candidates for state offices.
  • “trigger” provisions granting supplemental public funding to candidates participating in the Citizens Election Program on the basis of the level of expenditures made by non-participating opponents or independent expenditures opposing the participating candidate.
We briefly comment on the potential significance of these holdings in two parts. Pay-to-Play Reforms By Rebecca Moll Freed Pay-to-play reform has been spreading to a growing number of states in recent years. The Second Circuit decision trims back some of the more ambitious restrictions and raises additional potential concerns about the constitutionality of outright contribution bans (as opposed to limitations). Was this victory for First Amendment principles too narrow? The Court struck the ban on contributions by lobbyists, distinguishing between contractors and lobbyists because the recent corruption scandals in Connecticut in no way involved lobbyists. The Court reasoned, therefore, that no constitutional basis existed for subjecting lobbyists to an outright ban on contributions. The Second Circuit struck down the solicitation ban as unconstitutional because unlike limiting contributions which present “marginal speech” restrictions, the Court reasoned that a ban on solicitation is a ban on speech itself – the core activity protected by the First Amendment. As such, solicitation restrictions are subject to strict scrutiny and must be narrowly tailored to serve a compelling government interest. The Second Circuit opined that while it is easy to see how a large contribution may be given to secure a political quid pro quo, it is not clear that individuals might secure political favors simply by urging others to make contributions. In contrast, the decision maintains that a total ban on contributions by certain business entities with or seeking state contracts (and associated individuals and PACs) is constitutional based on a history of actual corruption by state contractors and the resulting public perception of corruption posed by contributions from this class of contributors. The decision referenced a long line of campaign finance jurisprudence, from Buckley v. Valeo through Citizens United v. FEC. But was the Court’s reasoning in upholding the contractor ban consistent with its concurrent striking down of the lobbyist contribution and contribution solicitation bans? For example, in striking down the ban as applied to lobbyists the Court noted that an outright contribution ban “utterly eliminates an individual’s right to express his or her support for a candidate.” The Court also states that “[a] ban is a drastic measure.” Because an outright ban strips individuals of the right of political association and of the right to express their support for candidates of their choice, the ban raises the question of whether it will continue to survive constitutional scrutiny as the recent corruption scandals recede into history and public perceptions of state contractors change. The Second Circuit’s decision may also have consequences beyond Connecticut. Take New Jersey for example. Although New Jersey’s statewide pay-to-play restrictions contain a reduced limit rather than an absolute ban, many local pay-to-play ordinances include absolute bans on contributions by government contractors. Will these provisions withstand constitutional muster? Will the State of New Jersey look to ban contributions by contractors rather than subjecting contractors to a reduced limit? Another question arises with respect to solicitation restrictions in New Jersey’s statewide pay-to-play laws. Currently a state vendor may solicit contributions of up to $300 each to/for a covered recipient. Is this solicitation restriction constitutional? In the wake of the Green Party v. Garfield, it looks as though the ever changing landscape of pay-to-play reform may evolve into an even more intricate labyrinth of limitations, restrictions and prohibitions. The question is – will these more stringent restrictions work to prevent actual corruption and to counter the perception of corruption in the government contracting process? Public Financing By Laurence D.  Laufer Earlier this week Trigger, the late Roy Rogers’ taxonomically-preserved horse, brought $266,000 at auction.  The New York Times laments that the "trigger" provisions of public campaign financing laws might likewise be on their last legs. In issuing a stay last month blocking additional matching funds to gubernatorial candidates under Arizona’s trigger provision (McComish v. Bennett), the U.S. Supreme Court sent a strong signal that it would hold such provisions unconstitutional, much as the Second Circuit just did. Following the Supreme Court’s 2008 decision in Davis v. FEC, the Second Circuit found the trigger provision to be a “penalty” on a nonparticipant’s or independent spender’s choice to spend personal funds. The Court found the governmental interest in encouraging participation in a public financing program or in leveling electoral opportunities insufficient justification for this trigger under the First Amendment. Is there a legislative alternative that might pass constitutional scrutiny? The New York City campaign finance law suggests a possibility. While it includes a now similarly vulnerable provision triggering additional matching funds based on the level of an opposing non-participant’s spending, New York City’s law also contains a separate provision designed to conserve public funds for competitive elections. Specifically, if a participant’s opponent fails to raise or spend at least one-fifth of the applicable spending limit (and fails to meet alternative criteria demonstrating competitiveness), the maximum public funds payment to the participant is reduced by 75 percent. In its 1976 landmark ruling, Buckley v. Valeo, the U.S. Supreme Court upheld presidential public financing which reflected the government’s “interest in not funding hopeless candidacies”. Thus, legislatures adopting public campaign financing may constitutionally choose to calibrate levels of funding made available to candidates as a safeguard against wasting taxpayer dollars. Here’s how a “reverse trigger” might work. Initial public funds awards are made up to the maximum level permitted in the hypothetical law. But then portions of that funding are not actually released to the qualifying candidate until an opponent demonstrates a sufficient level of competitiveness; the opponent’s level of spending may be one of several alternative criteria. Importantly, the law would make no distinction as to whether the opponent is a participating or non-participating candidate. The goal would not be to level the playing field among candidates, but rather to protect against wasteful disbursements of public money. Thus, a full award would be released in segments, according to the opponent(s)’ competitive performance. Each segment of the full award would be released only if and when it is actually needed by the qualifying candidate. As against a First Amendment challenge, this reverse trigger just might be seen as a horse of a different color.

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