Montana Supreme Court Rebukes Corruption Under the Big Sky

On Friday, Dec. 30, 2011, the Montana Supreme Court issued a ruling upholding the state’s ability to regulate how corporations can raise money and preventing them from directly spending it to influence elections. The opinion also contained stunning rebukes of the U.S. Supreme Court’s infamous 2010 Citizens United decision.

The Citizens case overthrew a century of precedent by justifying corporate personhood and unlimited corporate spending as “speech.”

The conservative, radically anti-environmental political group Western Tradition Partnership, which has since changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, sued the State of Montana, relying on the Citizens ruling.

A Helena district judge ruled Montana’s ban unconstitutional, but the Montana Supreme Court overturned that decision, reinstating the century-old Corrupt Practices Act. This 1912 law prevents corporations from directly spending money to influence state elections and also sets aggressive disclosure requirements.

For this decision, the majority opinion frequently referenced Montana’s unique history of corruption as warranting this restriction on corporate spending.

One of the most obvious examples of the corporate control under which Montana found itself at the turn of the 20th century is the notorious Anaconda Mining Company, owned by the all-consuming Standard Oil conglomeration. Authors Richard Nostrand and Lawrence Estaville, of the University of Oklahoma and Texas State, respectively, write that Anaconda “mined and smelted metal, leveled forests, owned the newspapers, bribed the legislature, set the wages, murdered union organizers, exported the earnings, and finally shut down, leaving Butte and Anaconda the poorest cities in the state and the largest EPA Superfund site in the country.”

Various commentators have implied that this decision directly challenges the Citizens case. Unfortunately, it won’t quite do that. The majority opinion relied heavily on the argument outlined above—that Montana’s unique experience with corruption gives it a compelling interest to restrict corporate spending.

However, even dissenting Judge James Nelson joined the majority decision in criticizing the assumption that corporations can spend unlimited sums of money. That will be important in our nation’s future, if other states conclude similarly. American Tradition has announced that they intend to appeal the case to the U.S. Supreme Court.

This decision possesses clear implications for Montana. American Tradition Partnership — a shadowy group that got in trouble in 2010 for breaking state campaign laws — has also testified before the Montana Supreme Court against the state’s contribution limits. Their desire, clearly, is to funnel unlimited amounts of untraceable outside money into Montana politics.

This decision reserves Montana for Montanans and rejects the flawed idea that corporations are either natural persons or are somehow deprived of their “rights” if their political spending is regulated. Rejecting corporate personhood and applying aggressive restrictions on how they can influence the political process only strengthens democracy.

In his conclusion, Judge Nelson called the concept of corporate personhood an “affront to the inviolable dignity of our species,” suggesting instead that corporations are merely “soulless creations of government.”

Due to their deep pockets and out-sized influence, corporations are not held equally accountable for their sins, he concludes. “Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.”