The Affordable Care Act isn’t the only consequential law whose fate the U.S. Supreme Court holds in its hands. Before the end of the month, the Court is also expected to decide whether to hear a Montana campaign-finance case that may alter the landmark Citizens United ruling. The Montana case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, arose from a challenge to the state’s campaign-finance law. In 1912, when Montana’s “copper kings” routinely drew on their immense wealth to buy off local politicians, the state’s citizens approved a ballot initiative called the Corrupt Practices Act, which banned corporate money in state campaigns and imposed strict limits on individual donations. Today, state legislators can take no more than $160 from individual donors; candidates for governor can take about $1,000. The winner of a Montana Senate race spends an average of $17,000—compare that to the more than $125 million that’s been spent in Wisconsin on a series of recall elections since last winter. Montana’s insistence on transparency and the barriers it built to contain corporate spending have “nurtured a rare, pure form of democracy,” wrote Democratic Governor Brian Schweitzer.
But such democracies have been upended by Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that held that political spending by corporations and unions is protected speech under the First Amendment. Wielding the case as a precedent, American Traditin Partnership—a Virginia-based conservative advocacy group devoted to “fighting the radical environmentalist agenda”—filed suit to strike down Montana’s statutes, which the group argues violated the spirit of Citizens United. A district court agreed with them. But as Montana’s recent nullification movement illustrates, many locals are happy to flout federal precedent when it comes to laws they don’t like. Last December, Montana’s Supreme Court upheld the 100-year-old law.
Now the U.S. Supreme Court is being asked to reverse that decision. Twenty-two states, plus the District of Columbia, have joined Montana in arguing that “states should have the right to be the masters of their own elections,” as Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock—who is also the state’s Democratic nominee to replace Schweitzer—wrote in an op-ed on Monday. But that contention appears to fly in the face of Citizens United, as one of the dissenting justices on the Montana Supreme Court ruefully pointed out, while lamenting “the distasteful position of having to defend the applicability of a controlling precedent with which I profoundly disagree.”