The Montana Supreme Court issued a ruling last week that could possibly cause a Supreme Court challenge to the Citizens United decision. In a 2-1 decision, the court barred corporations in Montana from making contributions to campaigns.
The Montana majority, in an opinion written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, said that a closely similar ban could withstand the Citizens United ruling because the Supreme Court had left open the possibility that a “compelling interest” would allow such a measure, and the majority found that interest in Montana’s past history and its present economic and political climate. Corporations are more likely to have corrupting influence with their political spending in Montana, the majority said, because it is a small state, its economy still depends upon outside corporate interests, and its political campaigns are not very expensive so they do not bring out heavy donations by individuals to compete with vast corporate treasuries.
The dissenters, the majority noted, had interpreted the Citizens United ruling as declaring “unequivocally that no sufficient government interest justifies limits on political speech.” Disagreeing, the majority said that the decision put a burden upon government to show that such a restriction satisfies a “compelling state interest.” It concluded: “Here the government met that burden.”
The McGrath opinion provided a vivid chronicle of the days in Montana’s past when the so-called “Copper Kings” bought and sold politicians and judges in the way that other people buy and sell consumer goods (a comparison that the majority attributed to Mark Twain). It noted that the states’ voters had had enough of that corruption, so they used their newly acquired initiative power in 1912 to pass the ban on corporate political spending.
I am in the process of reading through the ruling (found here). It's a fascinating read, walking through the history of mining and other industries in Montana. It emphasizes Montana's unique history, where outside corporations came in and transferred resources out of the state, courtesy of the politicians they bought.
The primary legal challenge is to the premise of the Citizens United ruling which suggests corporate influence in politics does not directly correlate to corruption. While I haven't read through everything yet, it seems clear that the Montana court was striking at the core of Citizens United with the strength of their unique history behind it.
It remains to be seen whether a challenge will be heard by the U.S. Supreme Court or they'll just summarily strike it down. Stay tuned.
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