The Montana Supreme Court today upheld Montana’s century-old ban on corporate political expenditures in state elections. The Court’s 5-2 ruling sets up the first direct challenge to the US Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision in Citizens United v. FEC, which equated corporations with people under the First Amendment and swept away longstanding precedent that had barred corporate expenditures in federal elections. Montana’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act came under legal attack following the Citizens United decision, and Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock has vigorously defended the state’s law in the Montana courts, leading to today’s state supreme court ruling.
“[T]he State of Montana, or more accurately its voters, clearly had a compelling interest to enact the challenged statute in 1912,” wrote Chief Justice Mike McGrath for the Court’s the majority opinion in the case of Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. State of Montana. “At that time the State of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests.”
“The question then, is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did,” Chief Justice McGrath continued. “…Issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government. Clearly, Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.”
“Citizens United,” Chief Justice McGrath declared for the Court, “does not compel a conclusion that Montana’s law prohibiting independent political expenditures by a corporation related to a candidate is unconstitutional.”
“This is a huge victory for democracy,” said John Bonifaz, the co-founder and director of Free Speech For People (www.freespeechforpeople.org), a national campaign launched on the day of the Citizens United ruling in January 2010 to overturn the Court’s decision. “In a powerful ruling, the Montana Supreme Court has rightly upheld its century-old law barring corporate political expenditures, a law that has proved necessary for protecting the integrity of Montana elections. With this ruling, the Montana Supreme Court now sets up the first test case for the US Supreme Court to revisit its Citizens United decision, a decision which poses a direct and serious threat to our democracy.
“The Montana state supreme court justices have just provided a New Year’s gift to the nation,” Bonifaz continued.