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U.S. Supreme Court reverses ban on corporate spending in elections

By   /   June 25, 2012  /   News  /   1 Comment

By PHIL DRAKE | Montana Watchdog

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday reversed a decision by the Montana Supreme Court that prohibited corporate campaign donations, striking down a century-old ban and now allowing businesses to give money in elections.

“The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizen United applies to the Montana state law,” the justices wrote in their decision on American Tradition Partnership vs. Attorney General Steve Bullock and the state of Montana. “There can be no serious doubt that it does … Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.”

The debate has been couched as a First Amendment — Freedom of Speech — issue in which opponents of the ban on corporate spending said Montana’s laws prohibited corporations from contributing to campaigns — a form of free speech. Supporters of the ban said corporations are not people and that Montana has a history of corporate influence in campaigns and that’s why laws were passed 100 years ago banning corporate funds in elections.

The justices, who voted 5-4 to strike down the ban, also noted in their 2010 ruling on Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission, found that “political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation.”

American Tradition Partnership, which claimed the1912 law was unconstitutional under the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, released a statement Monday calling for Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Bullock to resign, saying it won “for the simple reason the law and the Constitution are always on our side.”

“We are pleased the Justices of the United States Supreme Court have upheld the Constitution’s guarantee of free speech without limits or retribution by government officials,” ATP officials wrote in a statement posted on their website. “As clearly stated by the First Amendment, politicians cannot outlaw political speech to create a favorable political environment or because they simply don’t like the type of speaker.”

ATP said Schweitzer and Bullock tried to limit political speech that may shed sunlight on their “corrupt practices.”

“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.”

Schweitzer criticized the court’s, per curiam decision, which was not signed and presented as an opinion of the entire court.

“I guess the United States Supreme Court disagrees with the Montana Supreme Court and a good part of Montana,” Schweitzer told Montana Watchdog. “It means now that dirty, secret and foreign money can decide Montana elections.

“This is a system they are using in Washington, D.C. And this is a system that now allows the stink from Washington, D.C.” to come to Montana,” he said.

Bullock said the Supreme Court’s decision would not be the “last word” on the issue.

“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. ,” he said in a prepared statement.

“I am very disappointed in what the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision means for state and local elections in Montana – and for our entire nation,” said Bullock, a Democratic gubernatorial candidate.

“Despite this disappointing decision, the last word has not been spoken on the issue of how we preserve a viable democracy in which everyday people have a meaningful voice,” he stated. “History will show that it was Montanans and the Montana Supreme Court that understood the heart of this issue and stood on the side of ‘We the people.’”

In his dissenting opinion, Justice Stephen Breyer wrote: “Moreover, even if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana.

Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the state had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations.”

Bryer was joined in his dissent by Elena Kagan, Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Sonia Sotomayor.

Banning corporate contributions in elections goes back to 1912, when voters approved the Corrupt Practices Act.

In 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission and prohibited federal regulations on corporate campaign expenditures and a Montana District Court ruled Montana’s law was unconstitutional. Then in 2011, the state Supreme Court upheld the act. Then in February, the U.S. Supreme Court stayed the Montana Supreme Court decision pending the American Tradition Partnership decision.

The issue seems to be divided among party lines. On June 17, U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., facing Republican challenger U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, debated the issue at the Montana Newspaper Association convention in Big Sky.

“News flash: Corporations are not people,” Tester said firmly. “Citizens United puts our democracy at risk.”

Rehberg said the spending is acceptable as long as it’s properly disclosed.

“There should be nothing more free than political free speech,” he explained.

Now there is a move to change the U.S. Constitution to ban corporate donations.

In May, Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger signed a petition, the Prohibition on Corporate Contributions and Expenditures in Montana Elections Act. Known as I-166, it would have Montana’s congressional delegation lead federal colleagues to offer an amendment to the U.S. Constitution that corporations are not entitled to constitutional rights.

On Feb. 28, the group behind I-166, Stand With Montanans, launched a campaign and filed language with the Montana Secretary of State to place a citizen initiative on the November ballot.

Last week, the group submitted 40,000 signatures, about 15,000 more than needed, to the Secretary of State’s office for verification.

C.B. Person, Stand With Montanans treasurer, said the Supreme Court chosed to “double down” Monday with the “disastrous” decision it made with Citizens United.

“It is a good bet that Montana elections will no longer be for Montanans and fair, but instead will be funded by outside groups who do not care about our history and our people,” he said in prepared remarks. He called on people to support I-166.

“This November, Montana voters will have the chance to clarify that corporations are not people, that money is not speech, and once again act to get big money out of our elections by voting for I-166.

“We hope this offensive Court’s ruling is a flash point for a national prairie fire to overturn Citizens United and affirm that in America, ‘we the people,’ not ‘we the corporations,’ are in charge,” Pearson stated.



Phil formerly served as staff reporter for Watchdog.org.