Court denies challenge to Clean Election

Posted Oct. 05, 2010, at 11:37 p.m.

BANGOR, Maine — A federal appeals court on Tuesday refused to suspend key portions of Maine’s campaign finance law ahead of the November election.

The 1st Circuit Court of Appeals rejected an emergency motion filed by critics of Maine’s Clean Election Act who had sought to suspend the practice of providing matching funds to candidates participating in Maine’s public campaign financing system.

The plaintiffs in the case — Rep. Andre Cushing of Hampden, former state Rep. Harold Clough of Scarborough and the Respect Maine Political Action Committee — also have challenged the $750 limit in private donations to a campaign.

The plaintiffs had asked the court to suspend those provisions of Maine’s public campaign financing program ahead of the Nov. 2 election, pending the outcome of their appeal.

But in their ruling, the three-judge panel cited the potential harm of suspending the program so close to the election while the full appeal is under consideration.

“Under the balancing test, we consider the considerable harm that an emergency injunction would cause the many candidates, both MCEA participants and not, who have relied on the challenged provisions,” the judges wrote.

“We also note the harm to the public interest from the chaos that will ensue if the Maine election laws, which have been in place since 1996, are invalidated by a court in the crucial final weeks before an election.”

Clean Election candidates receive matching funds when they are outspent by their privately financed opponents, a practice supporters argue is necessary to ensure candidates are on a level playing field.

But critics of the programs have claimed that the additional subsidies actually inhibit privately financed candidates or groups from spending money, a potential violation of their free speech.

The U.S. Supreme Court is widely expected to take a closer look at a similar Arizona law in a case that, if accepted by the high court, could have direct applications to Maine’s program. Courts also have halted matching fund programs in Connecticut and Florida in recent months.

Suspending the matching funds provision of the program would have severely limited the amount of campaign money available to Democratic gubernatorial candidate Libby Mitchell and potentially hundreds of legislative candidates.

“The system works, so we are grateful that the court refused to upend the hundreds of Clean Election campaigns that are under way,” said Alison Smith, co-chairwoman of the nonpartisan organization Maine Citizens for Clean Elections, in a statement.

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