Montana High Court Says Citizens United Does Not Apply in Big Sky State

State Supreme Court Issues Remarkable Ruling Against Corporate Speech
Steven Rosenfeld
January 1, 2012 
Montana’s Supreme Court has issued a stunning rebuke to the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision in 2010 that infamously decreed corporations had constitutional rights to directly spend money on ‘independent expenditures’ in campaigns

The Montana Court vigorously upheld the state’s right to regulate how corporations can raise and spend money after a secretive Colorado corporation, Western Tradition Partnership, and a Montana sportsman’s group and local businessman sued to overturn a 1912 state law banning direct corporate spending on electoral campaigns.

“Organizations like WTP that act as a conduit for anonymously spending by others represent a threat to the political marketplace,” wrote Mike McGrath, Chief Justice of the Montana Supreme Court, for the majority. “Clearly the impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens.

The 80-page ruling is remarkable in many respects. Throughout, including in a lengthy dissent by a state Supreme Court justice who felt Montana was dutibound to abide by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, the Montana Court attacked the thinking behind the Citizens United decision and the impact of big money in political culture, including the notion that corporations are deserving of the same political speech rights as citizens.

“While, as a member of this Court, I am bound to follow Citizens United, I do not have to agree with the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s decision,” wrote Justice James C. Nelson, in his dissent. “And, to be absolutely clear, I do not agree with it. For starters, the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”

“It should be noted that the Montana Corrupt Practices Act was adopted in 1912 at a time when the country’s focus was on preventing political corruption, not on protecting corporate influence,” wrote Nelson, later in his dissent.

Western Tradition Partnership

The lead group that sued to overturn the Montana ban on direct corporate spending in campaigns followed a very deliberate course of clashing with virtually every aspect of Montana campaign finance law. The lawyers behind the litigation believe that they should face no limits or accountabililty for any political fund-raising or spending.

The Montana Supreme Court’s majority opinion described why Western Tradition Partnership was as slippery an organization as one finds in modern politics. They noted how the groups lawyers claimed that they should be allowed to spend freely because the group would have to disclose that activity under Montana law, when as the state’s Chief Justice noted in his opinion, the same group, using another name, actually had sued the state to overturn those very disclosure laws.

Moreover, the ruling quoted a fund-raising brochure that said, “If you decide to support this program, no politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you made this program possible.” The group also is involved in a third suit challenging the state’s campaign spending disclosure law.

“We take note that Western Tradition appears to be engaged in a multi-front attack on both contribution restrictions and the transparency that accompanies campaign disclosure requirements,” the Court said, adding in a footnote that the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices called the group a “sham” because it failed to register with the state, and refused to disclose the sources of its funds or its spending—as required by law.

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