Bashing governor in publicly funded campaign ads is OK in Connecticut legislative races, court rules

The Connecticut Supreme Court on Monday fined two Republicans running for the state Legislature thousands of dollars for criticizing the Democratic governor in a publicly funded campaign in 2014. The court ruled that authorities had violated the lawmaker’s constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech.

In a 5-0 ruling, the justices canceled a $5,000 civil penalty against the current senator. $2,000 fine imposed on Rob Sampson and former Sen. Joe Merkley by the State Board of Elections — a decision that their lawyers say could have implications for other states. Ta.

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The commission said Sampson and Merkley violated the rules of the Citizens’ Elections Program, which provides public funding to campaigns for public office and Congress across the state, and how to combat what they called “bad policy.” It was determined that he had sent election materials advertising the same thing. then-Governor Dannel Malloy;

Joe Merkley, the Republican nominee for lieutenant governor, speaks at the state Republican convention in Mashantucket, Connecticut on May 12, 2018. On Monday, May 20, 2024, the Connecticut Supreme Court ruled that state election officials violated state election law. In 2014, two Republicans who ran for state legislature, including Merkley, were fined thousands of dollars by the state Legislature for criticizing the Democratic governor in ads funded with public funds. In this case, the constitutional right to freedom of speech was violated. (AP Photo/Jessica Hill)

The system prohibits candidates from spending public money on campaigns of people outside of their own race, but the Supreme Court ruled that the commission criticized Malloy, whose candidates were Sampson and Merkley. He said it was an overreach to interpret the law to mean he couldn’t. Re-elected.

Chief Justice Richard Robinson wrote, “Each of the communications at issue in this appeal is little more than a rhetorical device designed to convey the merits of the plaintiffs’ candidacy as a bulwark against policies supported by Governor Malloy and the Democratic Party.” It cannot be rationally interpreted as such.” I wrote in my opinion.

Robinson said the commission “punishes the First Amendment in that it punishes the mention of Governor Malloy’s name in a way that is not functionally equivalent to speech directed squarely at the governor’s re-election campaign. It imposed unconstitutional conditions that violate the law.”

The ruling cited several decisions by the U.S. Supreme Court and other courts regarding what restrictions can be placed on free speech in publicly funded campaigns. According to the National Conference of State Legislatures, 13 states provide some form of public funding to candidates for state office.

Charles “Chip” Miller, a senior attorney at the Free Speech Institute, who represented both lawmakers, said the Connecticut case appears to be the first of its kind and that it would be important to seek outside guidance on the issue. He said it could affect other states as well.

“I think being able to connect someone to your opponent is very relevant right now,” he said.

“You could say someone is a Trump supporter or a Biden supporter, whether it’s you or someone else. Someone could run and say, ‘Hey, I’m a Sanders Democrat.’ That means something, right?” he said, referring to Sen. Bernie Sanders, an independent from Vermont who caucuses with Democrats.

Other states that provide public funding for state campaigns, such as Arizona and New York, limit the use of those funds to candidates’ own campaigns. New York state has special language that prohibits the funds from being used to support another candidate.

Michael J. Brandy, executive director and general counsel for the Connecticut State Elections Enforcement Commission, said the commission is reviewing the decision and consulting with the attorney general’s office to decide what to do next. .

“As the court wrote, this is a matter of first impression, and the law is notoriously difficult to apply,” he said in a statement. “Connecticut is at the forefront of campaign finance reform, so it makes sense.”

The state attorney general’s office, which represented the commission in the case, said it was reviewing the court’s ruling before deciding its next move.

Merkley, a Southington native, was re-elected to the Senate in 2014, but left the Legislature in 2019 after failing to run for lieutenant governor. He said he believed the commission’s interpretation of the law was “ridiculous” and would be overturned by the courts.

“What they were trying to do in Connecticut was so outrageous that I don’t think it would even be considered in any other state. “Who would want a ban on rational political communication?” he said.

Sampson, a Wolcott native, was re-elected to the House in 2014 and won the Senate seat vacated by Merkley four years later. He said he felt “vindicated” by the court’s unanimous decision and was pleased that future candidates will be able to exercise their right to free speech.

“In our case, it would have been perfectly reasonable for us to communicate to our constituents and constituents that we do not support the policies of the former governor,” Sampson said in a statement posted on social media.

During the 2014 election campaign, Mr. Sampson and Mr. Merkley sent out postcards and flyers touting their fiscally conservative positions and were central figures in Congress fighting what Mr. Malloy called “reckless” tax and spending policies. He claimed that there was. That year, Mr. Merkley received about $57,000 in public funds for his campaign and Mr. Sampson received about $28,000.

Sampson’s Democratic opponent that year, John Mazurek, filed a complaint with the commission over the two Republicans’ campaign materials and references to Malloy.

In 2018, the committee found that Sampson and Merkley had violated campaign finance laws by attacking Malloy for essentially using public funds in a separate 2014 campaign, a challenge to Republican Tom Foley, who was re-elected and then did not seek reelection to his 2018 term.


Sampson and Merkley appealed to a higher court, which upheld the commission’s 2022 decision. Judge Joseph Shortall said Sampson and Merkley had not shown their constitutional rights were violated by the commission and that they voluntarily agreed to accept public funds for their campaigns. Stated. and the conditions attached to that money.

They then appealed to the Supreme Court, which reversed the lower court on Monday.