The Supreme Court could give Citizens United a second look this month as it decides whether to take up a lawsuit against the state of Montana, which wants its century-old state law restricting corporate influence in elections to stay in place. Montana is the only state so far to assert its existing corporate-money ban should still stand after the court ruled in 2010 that corporations could spend unlimited amounts on election ads via independent groups. The Montana Supreme Court upheld the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, but the Supreme Court ordered that the law not be enforced while it reviewed a challenge by the conservative group American Tradition Partnership. The court is widely expected to strike the law down in keeping with its previous decision. Still, advocates view the case as their best chance yet to force the justices to re-examine elements of their landmark 2010 opinion that they say have already proven flawed in light of the subsequent deluge of campaign spending. Twenty-two states and Sens. John McCain (R-AZ) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI) have signed on with Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock (D) in support of their claim.
The Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision rested in part on its claim that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Bullock and his supporters are asking them to look at Montana’s own history and then decide whether that assumption is still valid.
The state’s early years were defined by an epic battle between spectacularly wealthy mining barons over the state’s vast resources. Copper billionaire William Clark’s election by the Montana state legislature to the Senate in 1899 was considered so blatant a product of bribery that the Senate refused to seat him, to which he reportedly retorted, “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale.” Cases like Clark’s were considered a factor in the passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which provides for direct election of senators. And widespread allegations that legislators had been wholly purchased by Montana’s “copper kings” prompted voters to go around their lawmakers and pass the Corrupt Practices Act via referendum.