At issue is whether the Citizens United case that freed corporations and unions to spend what they like in federal elections applies also to state limits on money from outside groups.
A century ago, Montanans decided they were sick of corruption and bribery in state politics and they did something about it: barred most corporate money from elections (and limited individual contributions to candidates). You can read Gov. Brian Schweitzer's perspective on this here.
But what Montanans did for themselves in 1912, the U.S. Supreme Court overrode 98 years later with Citizens United. The ruling allows unlimited contributions from individuals, corporations and unions for electioneering purposes, athough not directly to a candidate. As a consequence, great gobs of cash, much of it from billionaires, have flowed toward independent-from-the-candidate-but-not-really Super PACs. And we're just getting started. Steve Bertoni has reported that one of those so-called angels, Sheldon Adelson, is ready to contribute $100 million to efforts directed at electing Mitt Romney. Or rather, at defeating Barack Obama. For Adelson, whose fortune is estimated at nearly $25 billion, that's just pocket change.
The high court in Montana upheld the state law banning corporate spending last year, noting that “unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history.” In February, the U.S. Supremes issued a "stay" in the case until they could review briefs from attorneys on both sides. That was what they did privately Thursday.
Meanwhile, 22 other states have joined Montana in asking the Supreme Court to uphold the state court's ruling against Virginia-based American Tradition Partnership, a right-wing advocacy group focusing its efforts against what it calls "environmental extremism."
"The federal law struck down in Citizens United applied only to elections for President and U.S. Congress," New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote on behalf of the states. "By contrast, Montana's law applies to a wide range of state and local offices, including judgeships and law enforcement positions such as sheriff and county prosecutor."Critics of the Montana decision charge that the Montana justices showed “disrespect for the Constitution.”
It's not just some states that want the Supreme Court to hold a full hearing on the Montana ruling:
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Stephen Breyer (both dissenters in Citizens United) agreed in February that the court should temporarily block the Montana decision from going into effect. The “stay” was necessary “because lower courts are bound to follow this court’s decisions,” Ginsburg said.It's way beyond appearances. For one thing, the idea that Super PACs are really truly actually independent of the campaigns of candidates they support is something even those who just fell off a turnip truck can't possibly believe. Politicians may not be purchased quite so easily and openly as they were 100 years ago when Montana decided it had to act, but the differences between then and now have narrowed considerably since Citizens United was decided. Even half a step back on that ruling would be an improvement.
But she also quoted a key passage of Citizens United and wrote, “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations, ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.’”