The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday declared the state's campaign finance law unconstitutional, saying the provision that gives "fair fight" money to candidates violates their opponents' free speech rights.
OMAHA, Neb. (AP) - The court based its decision on a U.S. Supreme Court ruling last year that struck down a similar Arizona law. That law gave publicly financed candidates an initial sum and then essentially gave them $1 for each dollar their privately funded opponents spent over a certain limit.
Nebraska's law did not give candidates any initial money. But once their opponents exceeded spending limits, it kicked in money to try to level the playing field.
For example, a Nebraska candidate running for an office with a spending limit of $100,000 could opt not to abide by that limit and file an affidavit stating he expected to spend $120,000. His opponent, who planned to abide by the limit, could then get a public subsidy of $20,000, which would be the difference between the spending limit and his opponent's estimated expenditures. But if the candidate who agreed to the limits raised only $80,000, the $20,000 public subsidy would give him only $100,000, so his opponent would still have an advantage.
The U.S. Supreme Court voided only the matching funds part of Arizona's campaign finance law, not the validity of using public funds for campaign financing.
The Nebraska Supreme Court struck down the entire law, which also includes campaign contribution limits tied to spending limits and penalties for violations. The court said provisions in the 1992 law could not be separated from each other.
The law was intended to limit the influence of money in politics, but such laws have long been criticized as violating candidates' or donors' First Amendment free speech rights.
That was the argument made by Nebraska Attorney General Jon Bruning, who challenged the law. Its defenders, including the government watchdog group Common Cause Nebraska and the League of Women Voters, claimed the law was a legitimate way to combat political corruption.
But the court said "a state's interests in equalizing opportunities for candidates and in combating corruption do not serve a compelling state interest to justify the burdens placed on a candidate's First Amendment rights."
"The (law) is not narrowly tailored to serve a compelling state interest, and it does not pass constitutional muster," Nebraska Supreme Court Chief Justice Michael Heavican wrote for the majority.
"Fair fight" money came mainly from late campaign filing fees and campaign violation fines collected by the state. Taxpayers also could contribute to the fund by checking a box on their state tax income returns.
Bruning lauded the Friday ruling, saying the high court "recognized this constitutional violation and ruled in favor of protecting 1st Amendment rights."
Jack Gould, executive director of Common Cause Nebraska, did not fault the state's high court for striking down the law, saying previous federal rulings left it with little choice.
The impact won't be clear "until after we see a few election cycles," Gould said.
"But if we go by what's happening on the national level, all we can expect is that it's now a rich man's game," he said. "That isn't what was intended by our founding fathers. This was supposed to be a democracy in which everyone could run for office and have hopes of winning."
(Copyright 2012 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)