Montana Challenges Citizens United

It’s an exciting time to be a Montanan. Across the country, experts and average citizens alike claim that Montana poses the biggest challenge to the controversial Citizens United Supreme Court decision, a 2010 case widely credited with redefining the conception of corporate personhood and equating money with speech.

In 2011, the Montana Supreme Court heard Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. Attorney General of Montana. Western Tradition Partnership, now known as American Tradition Partnership (ATP), is a rabidly anti-environmental conservative think tank based in Washington, D.C.

The group, which has broken numerous state campaign finance laws, challenged Montana’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, a law enacted by popular vote that prohibits corporations from making direct contributions to political campaigns.

The Montana Supreme Court ruled 5 – 2 against ATP, upholding a century of reasonable restrictions that ensure the integrity of our state’s elections.

The language of the arguments makes it clear that Montana’s unique history of exploitation by large out-of-state corporations provides ample basis for restricting their ability to influence the political process in their own favor.

In the early 1900s, Montana was shackled by a “copper collar,” as mine owners literally gave out $5 bills in exchange for someone’s vote. That’s the equivalent of $130 per vote today.

In early Montana, the State Legislature appointed U.S. senators, and in 1899, infamous Copper King William Clark decided he wanted to be a senator. He doled out an astounding $10,000 cash to each state legislator — the equivalent of $250,000 today — and successfully bought the election (although the U.S. Senate later kicked out Clark when they discovered the bribes).

By comparison, the average senator or representative in Montana spends a mere $17,000 on his or her election campaign today, a number small enough to allow many average citizens the chance to represent their communities in the Legislature.

A recent analysis by two constitutional law experts at Truthout, a nonprofit news and analysis publication, argues that in the Citizens case, the Supreme Court failed to perform any reasonable balance of the “negligible speech value of private money in elections and the harm such private money causes to the democratic form of government.” In short: Corporate money does more harm than good to democratic elections.

Most Montanans serve in the Legislature because they genuinely want to better our state, and our aggressive disclosure requirements have created a relatively pure form of democracy that’s absent in many states.

Nefarious out-of-state groups like ATP, however, are deceitfully trying to push a destructive, anti-environmental national agenda on Montana. In a mailing sent out in May and obtained by this reporter, ATP develops a conspiracy theory in which “radical environmentalists are waging an all-out offensive in 2012.”

With a Washington, D.C., return address, ATP follows in the footsteps of the Anaconda Mining Company by attempting to buy the politicians and regulations they want in order to exploit Montana’s natural resources irresponsibly.

The ATP case relied on Montana’s unique experiences with corruption, but Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, who personally argued the case on behalf of the state, explained in a recent interview that the Citizens case will impact the entire country.

ATP has since appealed the Montana court’s decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, relying on the Citizens United logic. Justice Anthony Kennedy issued a stay, effectively putting Montana’s anti-corruption law on ice until the U.S. Supreme Court decides what to do with Montana’s case.

Due to this halted enforcement of the Corrupt Practices Act, this is the first election in a century in which Montanans have been forced to compete with the unregulated flow of cash from shady groups like American Tradition Partnership.

In a forceful June 3 editorial in the New York times, Montana Gov. Brian Schweitzer explains that Montana is already feeling effects from the suspension of the law, with bills showing up on his desk “that have been ghostwritten by a host of industries looking to weaken state laws” in order to profit at the expense of average Montanans.

Twenty-two additional states — both blue and red — have announced their support of Montana’s efforts. Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse, D-Rhode Island, and Sen. John McCain, R-Arizona, submitted a brief to the U.S. Supreme Court, urging the justices to let Montana’s law stand.

All this shows Montana forming the head of the spear in a bipartisan blowback against Citizens United. Moreover, these passionate examples demonstrate that opposing unlimited, untraceable corporate money in our elections is not a partisan issue; it’s a common-sense one.

With various political signs sprouting from every other yard during the many important races this summer, now is a more important time than ever to ensure that our campaigns are free both from corruption and the appearance of corruption.

Montana is characterized by high levels of citizen participation in its local elections, but if the average person believes elections have already been bought by wealthy out-of-state interests, it will be a disaster for civic engagement and our state as a whole.

A May 2012 study by the Pew Research Center found that public approval of the Supreme Court has reached an almost 30-year low — with very little partisan divide. It’s not hard to imagine that contrived decisions like Citizens United contribute to popular anger against a governmental branch with normally stable ratings.

In his interview, Bullock quoted a 1906 Montana newspaper, which claimed, “The greatest living issue that confronts us today is whether the corporations shall control the people, or the people shall control the corporations.” Over a century later, that question still rings true.