Montana: Big Sky or Big Money Country?
Protesters shout during a demonstration in front of the U.S. Supreme Court building, on the anniversary of the Citizens United decision, in Washington, D.C., on January 20, 2012.
In the coming months, the U.S. Supreme Court will consider its first challenge to the landmark 2010 Supreme Court decision, Citizens United v. Federal Elections Commission, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union spending in political campaigns. The case, which would ultimately determine whether the Citizens United decision can be applied at the state level, specifically to Montana, which has challenged the scope of the ruling. Although it prides itself on being known as Big Sky Country, with depth-defying vistas and landscapes stretching as far as the eye can see, Montana also recognizes that “big” shouldn’t apply to everything—especially the role of money in politics. In January, Montana became the first state to uphold a state law banning corporate contributions to campaign spending (the law in question, the Montana Corrupt Practices Act, was passed in 1912 to counteract the unfair influence wielded by the Butte “Copper Kings” that dominated the state’s economy). In its decision, the first to reject arguments that Citizens United applied to a state, the Montana Supreme Court found that the influence of money in politics is just as corrupting today as it was in 1912, so the statute should remain in place.
Now moving up the legal system, a Virginia-based group called the American Tradition Partnership is asking the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the Montana decision. The Supreme Court has blocked the ruling until it can review the group’s challenge, possibly as early as June 15-18, and decide what option to pursue: reject the state’s ruling, decide to not take up the case, or take up the case for full argument and briefing.
Until recently, Montana was the lone ranger of states in bringing the fight for campaign finance reform in the age of Citizens United to the Supreme Court. But 22 states and the District of Columbia are now siding with Montana in a brief they filed in the Supreme Court case. New York Attorney General Eric Schneiderman wrote in the brief that state and local restrictions are far different from the federal ban on corporate and union spending and that these elections, though on a smaller scale, are far more susceptible to being “bought” by moneyed interests. The brief asks the high court to go further than the terms of the challenge it will consider in the case and reconsider some of the core findings of Citizens United (Montana’s brief only asks the Court to discuss the reach of Citizens United as it currently stands and whether it applies to elections outside of President and U.S. Congress). How will the high court rule? Like many other cases heard by The Nine, it’s hard to say. In February, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer, both of whom dissented in the Citizens United ruling, signaled that it is time for the Court itself to revisit the case. The two justices wrote: “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,’” referring to the intent articulated in the ruling. The Montana challenge is just one indication of the pressing need for American courts and lawmakers to delineate a remedy to the influence of big money in politics. This is not a new issue in our nation, for sure, but one certainly amplified to an unprecedented degree by Citizens United.
Image from Reuters/Jonathan Ernst.