Green Party of Connecticut v. Garfield

Decision Date27 August 2009
Docket NumberCivil Action No. 3:06cv1030 (SRU).
Citation648 F.Supp.2d 298
CourtU.S. District Court — District of Connecticut
PartiesGREEN PARTY OF CONNECTICUT, et al., Plaintiffs, v. Jeffrey GARFIELD, et al., Defendants.

Benjamin Sahl, American Civil Liberties Union Foundation, Kevin James, Mark J. Lopez, Lewis, Clifton & Nikolaidis, New York, NY, David J. McGuire, American Civil Liberties Union, Hartford, CT, J. Gerald Hebert, Washington, DC, R. Bartley Halloran, Law Office of R. Bartley Halloran, Garrett S. Flynn, Law Offices of Garrett S. Flynn, LLC, Farmington, CT, for Plaintiffs.

Maura Murphy-Osborne, Perry A. Zinn Rowthorn, Attorney General's Office, Hartford, CT, for Defendants.


STEFAN R. UNDERHILL, District Judge.

In 2005, Connecticut enacted the Campaign Finance Reform Act ("CFRA") in response to public outcry over several high-profile corruption scandals involving state elected officials, including former Governor John Rowland. One aspect of the CFRA is the Citizens' Election Program ("CEP"), a voluntary public financing scheme for candidates seeking election to the offices of Governor, Lieutenant Governor, Attorney General, State Comptroller, Secretary of the State, State Treasurer, and candidates for state senate and the state house of representative.

The plaintiffs, a group of self-described "minor" parties and minor party candidates for statewide and state legislative office, challenge the CEP on the ground that its minor party candidate qualifying criteria and distribution formulae place an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on their fundamental, First Amendment-protected right to political opportunity by enhancing the relative strength of major party candidates who can more easily qualify for public funding. The defendants are the state officials responsible for operating and enforcing the CEP and a group of intervenor-defendants who support the principles underlying the CEP (collectively, "the state"). The state defends the CEP on the ground that it does not reduce minor party candidates' absolute political strength below what they would have otherwise been able to achieve in the absence of the CEP. The state further contends that any burden the CEP may impose is justified by compelling state interests in protecting the public fisc against funding hopeless candidacies, minimizing incentives that would promote factionalism and splintered parties, and encouraging high participation rates in the CEP by viable candidates.

On December 9-10, 2008 and March 11-12, 2009, the parties tried this case to the court. After considering all of the evidence and the parties' arguments, I make the following findings of fact and conclusions of law pursuant to Rule 52 of the Federal Rules of Civil Procedure.

Good motives underlie the enactment of the CEP, namely, to combat actual and perceived corruption arising out of large contributions from private sources and to encourage candidates to spend more time engaged with voters and each other on the pertinent issues, rather than spending time fundraising. Indeed, the state should be praised for its groundbreaking efforts to increase the public's confidence in state lawmakers and to promote the integrity of the electoral system as a whole. 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 a nationwide movement to increase transparency in the political process.

In pursuing its campaign finance reforms efforts, however, the state must remain mindful that it is operating in the arena of core, fundamental constitutional rights that demand narrow and carefully tailored regulations. For the reasons explained below, therefore, I conclude that the CEP imposes an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on minor party candidates' First Amendment-protected right to political opportunity by enhancing participating major party candidates' relative strength beyond their past ability to raise contributions and campaign, without imposing any countervailing disadvantage to participating in the public funding scheme.

First, the CEP provides public funding to participating candidates at windfall levels, well beyond historic expenditure levels in most races, thus creating merely illusory expenditure "limits" for participating candidates. The CEP grant levels are also well beyond what most candidates have previously been able to raise from private fundraising sources. Accordingly, the CEP acts as an impermissible subsidy for major party candidates, rather than a permissible substitute for those traditional sources of funding.

Second, the use of a statewide proxy artificially enhances the political strength of many major party General Assembly candidates by disregarding the level of public support for those candidates within their actual legislative district; in the past three election cycles, in nearly half of the legislative districts, one of the major parties has either abandoned the district or its candidate has won less than 20% of the vote, in other words, losing in landslide fashion. By using a statewide proxy, the CEP permits any major party candidate to become eligible for full public financing without first requiring those candidates to demonstrate the same significant modicum of public support that minor candidates must establish before becoming similarly eligible for full funding. In this way, the CEP distorts the strength of many major party candidates who have otherwise failed to establish any degree of success in a particular district by removing the inhibiting factors that previously deterred candidates from running in that district, such as lack of public support or inability to raise the necessary campaign funding to be competitive.

Third, the CEP's additional qualifying criteria for minor party candidates are so difficult to achieve that the vast majority of minor party candidates will never become eligible to receive public funding at even reduced levels. For instance, the legislature chose to set the necessary thresholds for the prior success requirement at vote levels that very few minor party candidates have historically attained, thus ensuring most minor party candidates would need to qualify for the CEP under the petitioning requirement. In turn, the evidence in the record establishes the CEP's petitioning requirement thresholds are nearly impossible to achieve given the minor parties' general lack of organizational structure, the great expense that a petition drive requires in the absence of a sufficient volunteer network, the CEP's prohibition on hiring professional canvassing services "on spec," and the general difficulties faced by unknown minor party candidates who cannot benefit from either name recognition or party identification when seeking the signatures of registered voters of that district.

Finally, the CEP's distribution formulae discourage minor party candidates from participating, or even attempting to participate in the CEP, by releasing significant additional funding to the participating major party opponent once the minor party candidate reaches a minimal level of fundraising and by hamstringing the minor party candidate's ability to collect additional contributions at levels that would permit him or her to close the fundraising gap. Given those difficulties imposed by the statute, minor party candidates face great incentives to forgo public financing, along with its associated transformative benefits, and seek funding from private sources only.

Having determined that the CEP burdens the political opportunity of minor party candidates, I further conclude that the CEP is not narrowly tailored to achieving the state's compelling interests because the state has failed to demonstrate how the public fisc is actually protected by imposing stringent qualifying criteria on minor party candidates, while permitting equally hopeless major party candidates to qualify under significantly less onerous qualifying criteria, in vastly greater numbers and at windfall funding levels. Furthermore, there is significant evidence in the record to suggest that much lower thresholds for the additional qualifying criteria — or indeed, a party-neutral scheme — would serve the state's compelling interests equally well without imposing an unconstitutional burden on minor party candidates.

I further conclude that the CEP's excess expenditure and independent expenditure provisions also unconstitutionally burden the plaintiffs' exercise of their First Amendment rights. In a manner analogous to the law struck down by the Supreme Court in Davis v. FEC, ___ U.S. ___, 128 S.Ct. 2759, 171 L.Ed.2d 737 (2008), the expenditure triggers in the CEP require non-participating minor party candidates and minor parties considering making independent expenditures to choose between limiting their political speech and providing bonus public funding grants to candidates they oppose. Again, the state has failed to show that these trigger provisions are supported by interests sufficiently compelling to withstand strict scrutiny.

As explained in more detail below, I conclude that the CEP represents an unconstitutional, discriminatory burden on the plaintiffs' First Amendment-protected right to political opportunity, in violation of the Fourteenth Amendment's Equal Protection Clause, because the state has not established how the CEP is narrowly tailored to further compelling state interests, particularly when there were less restrictive alternatives for achieving those interests available to the state at the time the CFRA was passed and subsequently amended. Accordingly, I conclude that the operation and enforcement of the CEP must be permanently enjoined.

I. Factual Background
A. The Parties
1. The Plaintiffs
a. The Green Party of Connecticut

The Green Party of Connecticut ("Green Party") was founded in 1996 and has since fielded...

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4 cases
  • Ass'n Of Conn. Lobbyists v. Garfield
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • July 13, 2010 invidiously discriminating against so-called minor political parties and their candidates. See Green Party of Conn. v. Garfield, 648 F.Supp.2d 298 (D.Conn.2009) (“ Green Party II ”). We reverse that part of the District Court's judgment and hold that the CEP does not, on this record, inv......
  • Scott v. Roberts
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Eleventh Circuit
    • July 30, 2010
    ...two federal district courts had declared similar state laws unconstitutional. See McComish, 611 F.3d 510; Green Party of Conn. v. Garfield, 648 F.Supp.2d 298 (D.Conn.2009). We agree with the district court that if McCollum did not know that he could not comfortably rely on a subsidy under s......
  • Williams v. Garfield
    • United States
    • U.S. Court of Appeals — Second Circuit
    • July 13, 2010
    ...statute: The CFRA ... was passed in response to several corruption scandals in Connecticut. [ See Green Party of Conn. v. Garfield, 648 F.Supp.2d 298, 306-07 (D.Conn.2009) (“ Green Party II”).] The most widely publicized of the scandals involved Connecticut's former governor, John Rowland. ......
  • Comptroller v. State Elections Enforcement Comm'n
    • United States
    • Connecticut Superior Court
    • August 31, 2010
    ...from, and solicited by, certain lobbyists, state contractors, and their immediate family members.” Green Party of Connecticut v. Garfield, 648 F.Supp.2d 298, 306-307 (D.Conn.2009), rev'd in part, 616 F.3d 213 (2d Cir.2010). The CEP was created to counter such actual and perceived corruption......

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