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Arizona Blocked from Subsidizing State Candidates with 'Clean Election' Funds

by Robert Barnes

The Supreme Court stepped into another campaign finance controversy on Tuesday when it blocked Arizona from distributing campaign subsidies to publicly funded candidates facing big-spending opponents.

The justices granted a stay of a portion of the state's 12-year-old Clean Elections program, which authorizes public money for state candidates who bypass most private fundraising. The court stopped the state from providing "matching funds" to those candidates whose opponents are spending large sums of private money.

The court's action disrupts a funding scheme already well underway, with early voting beginning at the end of July for an August primary. One of those most hurt by the decision is Gov. Jan Brewer (R), who is a publicly funded candidate.

David Donnelly of the interest group Public Campaign said the action changes the rules in the middle of the game.

"We think this will throw the Arizona election cycle into chaos," he said. "There are sitting officials who have received public funds, including the governor. The court is preventing them from running the campaign they signed up to run."

Brewer and other gubernatorial candidates who agreed to public financing will see their expected money drop from a little more than $2.1 million to $707,447 under the state formula. Businessman Buz Mills, a privately funded candidate in the Republican primary, already has spent nearly $2.3 million.

But opponents of the law said it unconstitutionally limited the free speech of the privately funded candidates, who were forced to cut back their spending to avoid having their opponents receive more public money.

"The Supreme Court's decision today will allow the 2010 Arizona election to occur without the government placing its thumb on the scale in favor of those politicians who receive government subsidies," said William R. Maurer, a lawyer for the Institute for Justice.

A federal judge in Arizona ruled that the law was unconstitutional. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit disagreed, saying it imposed only a minimal burden on First Amendment rights and was justified by the state's desire to clean up its "long history" of corruption.

According to the court's order, the stay would dissolve in the unlikely event the court decided not to take the case, although such a decision might not come for months. There were no signed dissents from the stay, which came, as is customary, without explanation.

Staff writer Carol D. Leonnig contributed to this report.

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