PETER OVERBY: What the court did do was tell Arizona it cannot give extra money to publicly financed candidates when they're up against big-spending opponents or outside money groups. Roberts said that kind of government grant to level the playing field unfairly burdened the free speech rights of the spenders. Nick Dranias represents candidate John McComish and the other plaintiffs in Arizona.
M: From our perspective, it is great that the court finally ended Arizona's Frankenstein's experiment with government-manipulated elections.
OVERBY: The Roberts court ruled three years ago that leveling the playing field isn't a legitimate reason to regulate political money. And Dranias said his organization, the Goldwater Institute, aimed this lawsuit at just the leveling funds, not at the overall public finance system.
M: Future lawsuits will undoubtedly determine whether the entire system can withstand the striking down of the matching funds component.
OVERBY: Some advocates of tighter campaign finance laws took comfort in the limited scope of the decision. Here's Arizona assistant attorney general James Barton.
M: Justice Roberts' opinion took the time to say that this isn't an attack on public financing in general. It's only related to these triggered matching funds.
OVERBY: And that's where Justice Elena Kagan focused a fierce dissent. Writing for the three more liberal members of the court, she said anyone familiar with core American values of democracy and robust debate might, quote, expect this court to celebrate or at least not interfere with a public financing law. Kagan's dissent could open a new chapter in the campaign finance debate.
OVERBY: To the majority, it looks like the mere mention of a leveling interest is enough to doom the law.
OVERBY: This is Rick Hasen, a law professor at the University of California, Irvine, who's also defending public financing in another case.
OVERBY: Justice Kagan, in her defense, says so what if some of this is motivated to level the playing field. It was also motivated on anti-corruption grounds and it is justified on anti-corruption grounds.
OVERBY: Still, Kagan is in a four-justice minority on the Roberts court. Monica Youn was an attorney for the Brennan Center for Justice, which filed an amicus brief.
M: This is the fifth campaign finance case that the Roberts court has heard and the fifth that it has struck down in, you know, a mere five years.
OVERBY: Nick Dranias at the Goldwater Institute said there are seeds of future lawsuits in today's decision. He says he found one in one of the chief justice's footnotes.
M: It says, quote, "public financing does nothing to prevent politicians from accepting bribes in exchange for their votes," end quote. Now, that, to me, is a substantial finding that cuts out one of the three legs that has traditionally upheld public financing, that it's a means of preventing bribery to politicians.
OVERBY: Peter Overby, NPR News, Washington.
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