By Dustin Hurst ǀ Watchdog.org
HELENA — Whoosh!
Did you hear it?
It’s the sound of unions and corporations ripping checkbooks from their back pockets.
In a 5-4 decision released early Monday morning, the U.S. Supreme Court struck down Montana’s 100-year-old law banning corporations and unions from spending unlimited amounts to influence elections, effectually allowing more money to flow into state politics.
Democratic Attorney General Steve Bullock, who supported Montana’s 1912 law, issued a statement after the ruling slamming the court for what he called a partisan and political ruling.
“It is a sad day for our democracy and for those of us who still want to believe that the United States Supreme Court is anything more than another political body in Washington, D.C.,” Bullock wrote.
The Montana Supreme Court in December upheld the 1912 law in a 5-2 vote, saying the state’s unique relationship with corporations warrants the ban.
Treasure State voters put the prohibition in place in the early 1900s after mining mogul W.A. Clark of Copper King fame bought a U.S. Senate seat in 1899 by bribing state lawmakers. That stunt contributed to the passage of the U.S. Constitution’s 17th Amendment, a law saying the people, not state legislative bodies, will elect U.S. senators.
Monday’s ruling is in the same vein as 2010’s landmark Citizen’s United judgment, the case that originally permitted unlimited corporate and union spending in elections nationwide. In that case, the court essentially equated political spending with free speech, explaining that both are protected under the 1st Amendment to the U.S. Constitution.
In the case’s dissenting opinion, court Justice Stephen Breyer wrote that Montana should be able to regulate spending in its state-only elections.
“Moreover, even if I were to accept Citizen’s United, this court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s funding, made on record for it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana,” he wrote.
“Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the state had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations.”
Justices Elena Kagan, Sonia Sotomayor and Ruth Bader Ginsburg joined Breyer in opposition.
Reaction across the political spectrum varied widely.
Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, a staunch opponent of corporate money in elections, panned the ruling in a short video clip.
“Corporations aren’t people and they shouldn’t control our democracy,” Schweitzer said, adding that he’ll believe corporations are people “when Texas executes one.”
Conversely, American Tradition Partnership, a conservative-aligned policy group that originally challenged the 1912 ban, reveled in victory by calling on Bullock and Schweitzer to step down.
“Both Governor Schweitzer and Attorney General Bullock assumed office by taking a sworn oath to uphold the rights of Montanans,” the group wrote on its website.
“Given Governor Schweitzer and Attorney General Bullock’s latest court loss in a case in which they failed to honor their oath, American Tradition Partnership’s grassroots members across Montana ask both men to tender their resignations immediately.”
Free Speech for People, a Massachusetts-based think tank, is proposing a constitutional amendment to ban corporate spending in elections.
Its director, John Bonifaz, told his supporters that Monday’s ruling rejects common sense.
“In the face of the overwhelming evidence that the basic premise of the Citizens United ruling was wrong, five justices of the United States Supreme Court today said they do not care,” Bonifaz wrote. “They do not care.”
In May, Schweitzer, along with Lt. Gov. John Bollinger, signed an initiative petition created by Stand With Montanans, a Helena-based group that asks the Treasure State’s three-member congressional delegation to take the lead in pushing such a constitutional amendment.
Just four days ago, the group turned in more than 40,000 signatures, enough to get the initiative on ballots in November.
“Montanans want clean and fair elections and don’t want corporations to use their checkbook to buy our elections,” said C.B. Pearson, the group’s treasurer.
If the state certifies the signatures and voters approve the measure in November, it would have no force of law, but rather simply stand as a policy statement for Montana.