Corruption Buster Maybe, But It's Unconstitutional: Judge

When a candidate runs for the state House, he or she can receive $25,000. When a candidate runs for state Senate, he or she can receive $85,000, as long as they raise enough contributions in increments of $100 or less.

It’s state law and some have considered it a possible model for national campaign finance reform, but a federal judge said the law is unconstitutional because it discriminates.

Late Thursday, Judge Stefan Underhill ruled that a part of the law that provides a voluntary public financing scheme for candidates for statewide offices and state lawmakers puts an unconstitutional burden on minor party candidates' First Amendment right to political opportunity.

The rules are so tough that most minor party candidates never become eligible for public funding at even reduced levels, Underhill said. The law also discourages minor party candidates from participating in the program because once they raise a minimum level of fundraising the program releases significant additional funding to the major party opponent, the judge said.

Ironically, the law the judge said was unconstitutional was created to avoid corruption. State lawmakers adopted the campaign reforms in 2005 response to corruption scandals involving former Gov. John Rowland and other officials.

The program, known as the Citizens Election Program, enhances major party candidates' strength beyond their past ability to raise contributions, Underhill said, but minor party and petitioning candidates have to jump through more hoops.

The case got to this level after Green and Libertarian parties, as well as others sued the state, arguing that the law makes it difficult for minor party candidates to meet the criteria for getting public funds for their campaigns.

Gov. M. Jodi Rell maintains the law is a model for the nation.

“It was, and will remain the means to keep special interest and lobbyist dollars out of our election process.  I will do everything possible to keep this program intact and will support an immediate appeal of the decision,” she said. “I cannot, and will not, let Connecticut return to the days of unfettered special interests controlling our electoral process. If necessary, we can amend the law to address the concerns of minor parties.”

Attorney General Richard Blumenthal said the state will appeal the ruling to the 2nd Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals and will seek a stay of the ruling so that the program can continue operating.

"We believe it deserves review by the court of appeals because it conflicts substantially with decisions of the United States Supreme Court on some issues," Blumenthal said Friday. "Certainly this decision raises significant legal obstacles to the campaign finance reform movement here and around the country but it's only one ruling very early in an ongoing court battle," Blumenthal said.

Mark Lopez, attorney for the Green and Libertarian parties, said he was "absolutely delighted" with the ruling.

"We hope the legislature is called into session and quickly fixes this in time for the 2010 elections," Lopez said.

Blumenthal said the law does provide funding to minor party candidates on a sliding scale. He said officials were concerned about providing "windfalls to candidates who have very small support."

Underhill acknowledged that "good motives" underlie the law.

"Spurred on by a regrettable legacy of corruption that has pervaded all levels of elected office in recent decades, Connecticut is now commendably at the forefront of nationwide movement to increase transparency in the political process," Underhill wrote.

But he said the effort involves fundamental constitutional rights that demand narrow and carefully tailored regulations.

Underhill ordered state officials from operating the Citizens Election Program.

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