Sen. Rob Sampson and former Sen. Joe Markley are taking their case against the State Election Enforcement Commission to the Connecticut Supreme Court.
The case, which dates back to 2014, involves the use of state funds for election campaigns, known as the Citizens Election Program. A complaint against Sampson and Markley to the SEEC alleged Sampson and Markley were using Gov. Dannel Malloy’s policy record for campaign communications despite Citizen Election Program only allowing candidates to use the funds for their own election.
Markley and Sampson argued to the SEEC that their roles in the General Assembly were a check on the governor’s powers and was therefore related to their election campaigns.
At the time, Malloy was running against Republican gubernatorial nominee Tom Foley. The SEEC found the campaign communications improperly opposed Malloy, rather than either Sampson or Markley’s opponents, and issued fines of $2,000 and $5,000 in 2018.
Markley and Sampson, represented by attorney and State Representative Doug Dubitsky, R-Chaplin, and the Institute for Free Speech, a Virginia-based legal foundation, took the matter to court, arguing a violation of their free speech rights.
According to the 2018 court complaint, Sampson and Markley “claim that voluntarily entering into the Citizens Election Program does not cause them to forfeit their right to exercise these constitutional rights,” and that the SEEC’s decision “was arbitrary and capricious in its application of state election laws to chill free political speech.”
Their case was dismissed in 2018 when Judge Trial Referee Joseph M. Shortall found Markley and Sampson had not exhausted their administrative remedies in a timely fashion, but that decision was reversed by the State Supreme Court in 2021, allowing their case to continue.
Shortall, ultimately sided with the SEEC, affirming the watchdog agency’s decision, but the case is now headed to the state’s highest court for a decision, which will ultimately test the limitations of Connecticut’s public campaign finance program.
“I’m thrilled to find out that after eight years of limbo, Sen. Markley and I will finally have our day in court,” Sen. Rob Sampson commented. “Back in 2014 when this abuse of administrative authority occurred, the SEEC offered us as opportunity to settle without any fines, but we felt so strongly that a policy that so improperly interferes with the first amendment rights of political candidates simply could not stand. So, we took it upon ourselves to be the voice of protecting constitutional principles when it comes to freedom of speech in political campaigns.”
Reached for comment, Markley said the court case is “a matter of principle,” and likened the case to a congressional candidate not being allowed to reference Donald Trump in their campaign ads.
“It’s absurd to say that talking about the incumbent governor and one’s attitudes toward the policies of the incumbent governor are not germaine to a political campaign,” Markley said, adding they had used similar language during their 2012 campaign without incident.
The SEEC issued an advisory opinion in October of 2014, building upon a 2011 declaratory decision, clarifying that, for example, a state senate candidate could not use public campaign funds to disparage a gubernatorial candidate. Markley says the fact that the SEEC had to issue this advisory opinion shows the language of the law was unclear.
“The fact of receiving public financing makes no difference in our right to express our opinions about executive branch leadership and their policies,” Markley said. “We don’t think we were wrong, and we continue to not think we’re wrong.”
“I believe the law is clear and we will both win our case and set a strong precedent protecting political speech in the way that was originally intended,” Sampson said.