This is huge.
The Montana Supreme Court has just upheld the state's ban on corporate spending in state elections, a ruling that stands in stark opposition to Citizens United and overturns a lower court's ruling that had deemed Montana's century-old ban on election spending unconstitutional.
The immensity of this moment – and the potential reverberations this ruling could have – cannot be overstated, for Montana's highest court has provided a blueprint for how other states can contravene the Citizens United decision in state and local elections.
The Montana Supreme Court restored the state's century-old ban on direct spending by corporations on political candidates or committees in a ruling Friday that interest groups say bucks a high-profile U.S. Supreme Court decision granting political speech rights to corporations.
The decision grants a big win to Attorney General Steve Bullock, who personally represented the state in defending its ban that came under fire after the "Citizens United" decision last year from the U.S. Supreme court.
"The Citizens United decision dealt with federal laws and elections — like those contests for president and Congress," said Bullock, who is now running for governor. "But the vast majority of elections are held at the state or local level, and this is the first case I am aware of that examines state laws and elections."
The State of Montana has, since the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, banned direct corporate spending in state elections. When, in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in its Citizens United decision that corporate free speech – in the form of political campaign spending – was constitutionally protected, Montana's ban was immediately challenged in the courts as unconstitutional.
Three Montana corporations – Western Tradition Partnership, Champion Painting and Montana Shooting Sports Association – took the State to court, charging that the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act was unconstitutional. A lower court agreed, and ruled that Montana corporations' election spending was now protected by the First Amendment based on Citizens United.
However, in an incredible and deeply significant decision, Montana's Supreme Court ruled against the lower court using strong, unequivocal language.
Here is a critical section from the court's synopsis:
The [Montana] Supreme Court applied the recent decision of the United States Supreme Court in Citizens United v. F. E. C., 130 S. Ct. 876 (2010), to examine the constitutionality of the Montana statute, and more particularly to determine whether Montana had demonstrated a compelling interest for the expenditure prohibition. Based upon the history of blatant political corruption that led to the enactment of the prohibition, as well as upon continued corporate influence and control in Montana into the twentieth century, the Supreme Court concluded that the State had and continues to have a compelling interest in curbing the corrupting influence that could arise from large expenditures of corporate money in Montana elections.
Perhaps the most significant element of this ruling is that it has provided a high-profile case for which the U.S. Supreme Court may be compelled to revisit the Citizens United decision. (Indications are that this ruling will be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.)
Again, from the Great Falls Tribune:
A group seeking to undo the Citizens United decision lauded the Montana high court, with its co-founder saying it was a "huge victory for democracy."
"With this ruling, the Montana Supreme Court now sets up the first test case for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit its Citizens United decision, a decision which poses a direct and serious threat to our democracy," John Bonifaz, of Free Speech For People, said in a statement.
Whether additional states will challenge Citizens United at the local level remains to be seen. But with Montana exhibiting the legal rationale for going over Citizen United's head (in claiming it only applies to federal elections), it's likely that other states, even those without existing local bans, will follow suit.
And it's likely that, at some point, Citizens United will have to be revisited by the U.S. Supreme Court.
We can only hope that what has occurred in Montana leads to a reversal of Citizens United and the ending of corporate free speech in America.
Dylan Ratigan must be grinning this morning.
As am I.
Follow me on Twitter @David_EHG
Author's Note 1:
On page 64 of the court's ruling, I found this particular section, entitled "Citizen Protection," to be particularly resonant:
C. Citizen Protection
¶108 The Court observes that allowing unlimited independent expenditures of corporate
money into the Montana political process would “drastically change campaigning by
shifting the emphasis to raising funds.” Opinion, ¶ 30. Direct political spending by
corporations could also “significantly affect the outcome of elections.” Opinion, ¶ 32.
The Court explains that Montana has a small population and enjoys political campaigns
marked by person-to-person contact and a low cost of advertising compared to other
states. Opinion, ¶ 30. Thus, the infusion of unlimited corporate money in support of or
opposition to a targeted candidate would leave the average citizen candidate “unable to
compete against the corporate-sponsored candidate.” Opinion, ¶ 38.
¶109 Furthermore, Montana voters feel they do not really “count” in the political
process unless they can make a material financial contribution; and they are concerned,
therefore, that special interests hold sway.
Author's Note 2:
This decision recalls for me one of my favorite political cartoons on the Citizens United decision, crafted by Kip Lyall: