RENEE MONTAGNE, Host:
At the U.S. Supreme Court today, another battle in the campaign finance wars. Last year, the high court overturned a hundred-year-old legal understanding that kept corporations from spending money on candidate elections. Today the issue is the public financing of campaigns in Arizona. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg reports.
NINA TOTENBERG: Nicholas Dranias represents some of the candidates who are challenging the law, among them John McComish, who was the only privately funded candidate in a four-way Republican State House primary in 2008. In a multiple-candidate primary like this, when a candidate like McComish spends more than a certain amount, his publicly funded primary opponents each get more money to match his expenditures.
NICHOLAS DRANIAS: So he gets swamped by overwhelming speech against his candidacy when he faces multiple participating candidates.
TOTENBERG: Lawyer Dranias also says that the system is rigged to suppress speech, forcing candidates to spend mainly at the end of the campaign - too late in the game to trigger more money for their opponents.
DRANIAS: In McComish's case, he specifically chose not to spend money on a robo-call, because at the point in time that he would have done that, it would have triggered three times as much money to be spent against him.
CHARLES FRIED: This is just whining.
TOTENBERG: Former Reagan Solicitor General Charles Fried.
FRIED: They're absolutely free to spend whatever they want.
TOTENBERG: Fried, who has filed a brief in this case on behalf of a coalition of Republican and Democratic former officeholders, says that the complaints voiced against the Arizona law are the same ones voiced by those who fought and lost the legal battle against corporate campaign spending in the Supreme Court last year. The case was called Citizens United.
FRIED: All those arguments were made in Citizens United; tipping the balance, loading the dice, swamping the airwaves. All those arguments were made and they were rejected.
TOTENBERG: Lawyer Dranias responds that the situations are not the same.
DRANIAS: The government is the one financing the swamping of speech and that makes all the difference. The First Amendment is about keeping the government out of the electoral system, not manipulating the electoral system.
TOTENBERG: But Fried disagrees.
FRIED: It's like saying that when the government has an anti-smoking campaign, it violates the free speech rights of tobacco companies. It's nonsense.
TOTENBERG: Nina Totenberg, NPR News, Washington.
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