Montana Supreme Court: Citizens United Doesn’t Apply in State and Local Elections

Print Share on LinkedIn More

January 3, 2011; Source: Wall Street Journal (Law Blog) | In the muddle of messages that have emerged from the Occupy Wall Street encampments, one of the more consistent themes has been a critique of the corporate sector’s riding roughshod over any notion of the “public good”—that is, the good for the nation’s 99 percenters through its domination of electoral processes. Of late, some Occupiers have taken to protesting against corporate money in politics, a dynamic that has been accelerating for years but moved into hyperspeed with the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision. Now, a decision by the Montana Supreme Court may be the vehicle for challenging the U.S. Supreme Court decisions that have green-lighted secret corporate money in elections.

Citizens United v. Federal Election Commissionand its predecessor, Buckley v. Valeo, relied on the concept that spending money for elections is a constitutionally protected form of free speech, which corporations, as “persons,” can exercise just like other persons.

Montana has had a 100-year-old ban on direct spending by corporations on political candidates or political committees in the form of its 1912 Corrupt Practices Act. Plaintiffs tried to overturn the Montana law, citing its conflict with Citizens United, but the Montana Supreme Court last year reaffirmed the corporate ban.

The Court’s argument was in part that Citizens United addressed federal laws and elections, but state and local elections were not subject to CU. Fundamental to the state’s argument against the plaintiffs, according to the WSJ, was that “Montana has ‘a compelling interest’ to uphold its campaign-finance laws that include both restrictions and disclosure requirements.” The state argued that 501(c)(4)s like the plaintiffs in the case, the American Tradition Partnership (self-described as a “no-compromise grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda”), “act as conduits for anonymous spending by others and represent a threat to the ‘political marketplace.’”

They don’t pussyfoot around, those Montana Supremes. This decision is a shot across the bow of the big secret special interest funders putting money into ostensibly “independent” 501(c)(4)s—and a challenge to the concept that secret money through (c)(4)s does anything but damage this nation’s electoral process. For those nonprofits who think—wrongly—that campaign finance reform isn’t a nonprofit issue, think again. We look forward to seeing the nonprofit 501(c)(4) amicus briefs that try to explain the democratic value of secret corporate money.—Rick Cohen