On December 30, the Montana Supreme Court issued a stunning ruling, rejecting arguments that the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision in Citizens United vs. FEC applied to Montana’s century-old ban on direct corporate election spending. The 5-2 ruling overturned a lower court and reinstated Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, a citizen initiative passed to confront some of the most overt corporate corruption in American history. While the Montana ruling detailed several ways in which the Corrupt Practices Act differed from the federal statute struck down in Citizens United, the justices clearly rejected much of the U.S. Supreme Court’s rationale. Citizens United struck down a federal law that prohibited corporations from directly spending company funds to advocate for or against political candidates.
One key distinction in Montana’s case was that the state presented extensive evidence of actual corruption, which the U.S. Supreme Court found lacking in Citizens United. And while Citizens United did not address nonpartisan and judicial elections, Montana’s law protects the very justices who decided the case from being intimidated or corrupted.
Of course, money drowning out the voice of citizens can happen in almost any election now, thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court bestowing Bill of Rights protections upon corporations – entities never mentioned in our Constitution. Justice Kennedy’s majority opinion in Citizens United also asserted that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,” a view rejected by the Montana Justices. That astounding claim promptly birthed super PACs, which can accept unlimited donations to support their favored candidate and attack his or her opponents. Fittingly, an obvious victim of super PACs in the current presidential primaries is Newt Gingrich, who previously hailed Citizens United as a “great victory for free speech.”