Moral Low Ground


‘American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock’: By 5-4 Vote, Supreme Court Strikes Down Montana Campaign Finance Law

(In)Justice, Inc. strikes again…

The United States Supreme Court on Monday struck down Montana’s century-old law limiting corporate spending on political campaigns, affirming the highly controversial 2010 Citizens United ruling and effectively expanding it to include state and local elections.

By a 5-4 vote along typically partisan lines, the justices ruled in American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock that Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which banned direct corporate expenditures in elections for state offices, was invalid because under Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission corporations are people endowed with constitutional free-speech rights to spend as much money as they please to influence the outcome of US elections.

Justice Anthony Kennedy, writing on behalf of the majority– Chief Justice John Roberts and Justices Clarence Thomas, Antonin Scalia and Samuel Alito– incredulously stated that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption” of the political process and “no sufficient governmental interest justifies limits on the political speech” of corporations.

But Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act, which was a citizens initiative, was enacted in order to curb rampant corporate-driven political corruption. Corruption was so bad in Big Sky Country in those days that a corporate copper baron named William Andrews Clark actually bought a US Senate seat. “I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” Sen. Clark, a Democrat, infamously retorted when confronted about his blatant bribery.

The Corrupt Practices Act, which states that “a corporation may not make… an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political party that supports or opposes a candidate or political party,” has served Montana well. And after the Citizens United ruling, the Montana Supreme Court ruled 5-2 that Citizens United did not apply to the Act.

A majority of the Supreme Court justices disagreed. There could be “no serious doubt,” they wrote, that Citizens United was indeed applicable to Montana law.

“Montana’s arguments in support of [the Montana Supreme Court ruling] either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case,” the majority wrote.

The four more liberal justices dissented. Citing Montana’s history of corporate-driven political corruption, Justice Stephen Breyer went so far as to write that the Court should reconsider its Citizens United decision or at the very least, the application of that ruling to this case.

“Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so,” Breyer wrote.

Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, along with Breyer, wrote in February that this case gave the Court an opportunity to revisit Citizens United in light of the massive amount of corporate cash being spent to “buy candidates’ allegiance.”

Indeed, Citizens United unleashed a tidal wave of corporate campaign spending in the 2010 elections, much of it from undisclosed sources, and gave rise to the super PACs that have bombarded America with vicious attack ads during the current election cycle.

But none of this, the majority of Supreme Court justices believe, “gives rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Some Republicans, including Senate GOP leader Mitch McConnell, praised the Court’s latest pro-corporate ruling. Sen. John McCain (R-AZ), a longtime champion of campaign finance reform, joined many Democrats in supporting Montana’s efforts to curb corporate campaign spending.

Twenty-two other states also backed Montana’s position, while the three corporate plaintiffs in the case received the backing of the US Chamber of Commerce, which has enjoyed a nearly unprecedented run of success in Supreme Court cases. Indeed, according to an analysis by the Constitutional Accountability Center, so far this term the Court has ruled in favor of the Chamber of Commerce’s position in every opinion it has issued. Under Chief Justice Roberts, the Chamber has won 68 percent of the cases it has brought before the Court– up from 56 percent during Chief Justice William Rehnquist’s tenure (1994-2005) and 43 percent under Chief Justice Warren E. Burger (1981-1986).

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