June 25, 2012; Source: Christian Science Monitor
Yesterday, the Supreme Court ruled that Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 is unconstitutional. If you’re wondering why it took the court 100 years to overrule the law which was created to prevent wealthy interests from essentially “buying” Montana elections, the key intervening factor was that the Supreme Court hadn’t passed its controversial Citizens United decision until last year. Rather than getting into details in its ruling, five of the Supreme Court’s nine justices decided that the case demanded nothing more than a summary reversal—which means, as the Christian Science Monitor explains, “the court is saying that the Montana Supreme Court’s mistake was so clear and so blatant that further consideration is unnecessary.”
If the U.S. Supreme Court limited its review of Montana’s 1912 law to whether or not it conflicts with the high Court’s Citizens United ruling, it’s easy to see where a quick (i.e., without the benefit of oral arguments) reversal stems from. Even advocates for the Montana law would likely admit that it indeed clashes with Citizens United. Advocates in Montana, however, were likely hoping that the Supreme Court would use the Montana law as an opportunity to revisit and reconsider its Citizens United ruling—perhaps to strike a different balance between corporations’ free speech rights and the right of the American people to enjoy an electoral system that is not completely dominated by wealthy corporations and, to a much lesser extent, unions.
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), reacted to the Supreme Court decision, saying that it “rolls back 100 years of transparency in Montana, returning us to an era when millionaires and billionaires bought elections for themselves…That’s not free speech; it’s corruption.” The nonprofit Common Cause (one of several organizations that joined in a “friend of the court” brief from the Campaign Legal Center) immediately issued a press release calling the Supreme Court’s decision “arrogant;” together with Free Speech for People, the group has launched StandWithMontanans.org, which seeks to “[pass] a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, establish that corporations are not people, and authorize limits on political spending.”
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Russ Feingold, the former U.S. senator from Wisconsin, also chimed in emphatically, calling the Supreme Court “broken” and saying that the Court “had the perfect chance” to “clean up the corrupt mess created by their lawless Citizens United decision” but that “instead, they just shrugged.”
Frequent readers of the NPQ Newswire will, by now, recognize that NPQ considers the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which unleashed a flood of secret corporate and union money into our political process (often through 501(c)(4) “social welfare” organizations) an absolute travesty for the American electoral process. You may also recall that President Obama took the largely unprecedented step of criticizing the Supreme Court’s decision to the face of its members during his 2010 State of the Union address. Since that time, CBS News reports that polls have shown the Court’s Citizens United decision to be about as unpopular with the general public as it is with the president or us at NPQ. No one who follows the Supreme Court, however, expects the justices to reverse themselves simply because a decision is unpopular in most situations.
However, some of the Court’s most historic decisions have come about as its members responded to overwhelming public opinion. Desegregation comes to mind; what changed in the famous Brown v. Board of Education case other than the fact that more Americans found segregation detestable than in earlier years?
Now, one of two things is likely to happen: either Congress will pass a constitutional amendment reversing the Citizens United decision (along the lines of what Common Cause, among others, has called for), or America will fully enter into an era of unprecedented plutocracy due to the unyielding opinion of five out of our nine current Supreme Court justices. –Mike Keefe-Feldman