by Jeremy Leaming
The Montana Supreme Court recently upheld the state’s century-old prohibition against corporate financing of elections, providing a striking rebuke to the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 opinion in Citizens United v. FEC.
In Citizens United the high court ruled 5-4 that corporations have First Amendment rights equivalent to persons, and therefore can funnel their expenditures into politics. Citizens United overruled long time federal regulations of corporate campaign financing.
Montana’s high court, with two members dissenting in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. State of Montana, said the Citizens United opinion does not nullify the state’s Corrupt Practices Act, enacted in 1912. The Montana campaign finance regulation was invalidated by a lower court state judge, citing Citizens United.
Writing for the Montana Supreme Court majority, Chief Justice Mike McGrath said the state had never lost a “compelling interest to enact” the law. “At the time,” McGrath wrote, “the State of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests.”
The chief justice continued that today concerns of “corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government. Clearly, Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.”
Jeff Clements, general counsel of Free Speech for People, a public interest group devoted to overturning Citizens United, lauded the Montana high court’s opinion, writing, “Corporations are not people. The Framers understood that. We are proud to stand today with the State of Montana to vindicate the Framers’ intent and to defend our democracy.”