High court takes test case [Rep-Am]

July 13, 2022

Article as it appeared in the Republican-American:


HARTFORD – The state Supreme Court is again claiming jurisdiction over a test case on the free speech rights of political candidates running for state offices in Connecticut.


The state’s highest court earlier this month exercised its prerogative to transfer the appeal of former state Sen. Joseph C. Markley and state Sen. Robert C. Sampson from the state Appellate Court for a second time.


Sampson and Markley are appealing the second dismissal of their legal challenge contesting findings of the State Elections Enforcement Commission that the two Republicans violated public financing rules for referencing then-Gov. Dannel P. Malloy in campaign materials in 2014.


Markley and Sampson have been arguing that any prohibitions restricting candidates for the General Assembly from referencing a sitting governor or a chief executive’s policies violates the First Amendment and the constitutional separation of power.


In February, a judge trial referee rejected their constitutional challenges to the SEEC’s determination that candidates who accept public funding can only mention themselves and their direct opponents in campaign advertising.


Lawyers for the two Republicans then initiated a direct appeal to the Appellate Court in mid-March, and the Supreme Court later claimed jurisdiction in a transfer order dated July 5. The justices will now rule on the merits of Markley and Sampson’s constitutional claims.


The move comes amid the ongoing election campaigns for governor and the 187-seat legislature. But the Supreme Court’s transfer order did not spell out a filing schedule or indicate when oral arguments might be heard. Election Day is Nov. 8.


Gov. Ned Lamont and Republican challenger Bob Stefanowski are privately funding their campaigns in the rematch of their close 2018 contest to succeed Malloy, but the SEEC has approved election grants for nearly 130 candidates, including Sampson.


In 2018, the SEEC fined Markley $2,000 and Sampson $5,000 after concluding the references to Malloy in campaign mailings from both Republican candidates and a Sampson newspaper ad violated the rules of the Citizens’ Election Program.


In mid-October 2014, the SEEC issued an advisory opinion that cautioned candidates against using state election grants to promote any other candidate, or oppose a candidate other than their direct opponent.


The state Democratic Party requested the opinion as Malloy and Republican nominee Thomas Foley were running neck-and-neck in a rematch of their down-to-wire 2010 race.


After the opinion’s adoption, Democrats filed complaints with the SEEC against 16 Republican candidates and political committees. Every other GOP target but Sampson and Markley signed settlements that acknowledged the election violations, but imposed no fines. The settlements said the expenditures would have been permissible if split with the Foley campaign.


At that time, Markley was running for re-election in the 16th Senatorial District, and Sampson was seeking another term representing the 80th Assembly District. In 2018, Markley gave up his Senate seat to run as the Republican candidate for lieutenant governor, and Sampson was elected to replace Markley.


Sampson and Markley appealed the SEEC’s finding in New Britain Superior Court in June 2018, and three months later Judge Trial Referee Joseph Shortall dismissed the appeal on technical grounds.


Lawyers for the two Republicans filed a direct appeal to the Appellate Court, and the Supreme Court subsequently claimed jurisdiction over the appeal. In a June 2021 ruling, the justices remanded the case to the trial court to consider the merits of Markley and Sampson’s political speech claims.