NY Times: Montana Takes on Citizens United

Two years ago, when the Supreme Court struck down bans on independent corporate and union expenditures in elections in the Citizens United case, Justice Anthony Kennedy’s majority opinion claimed that money does not “give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” While it might result in “influence over or access to elected officials,” he wrote, it is not the same as bribery.

Last month, in a 5-to-2 vote, the Montana Supreme Court rejected that misguided reasoning and upheld a part of a state anticorruption law banning corporations from making political expenditures from general treasuries. The court’s dissenters argued that Montana cannot ignore the Citizens United decision — and they may well be proved right when the case is appealed to the United States Supreme Court. Still, the majority and a dissenting opinion agree that Citizens United has given corporations enormous power barely distinguishable from bribery.

Montana has a long history of fighting political corruption. A century ago, state voters passed an initiative that banned corporate spending to help or hurt candidates for public office. They were responding to epic political corruption caused by the copper kings who controlled a big part of the state’s wealth.

The court’s majority in Western Tradition Partnership v. Montana ruled that Citizens United does not apply to Montana’s law because it is tailored to meet a compelling state interest and its burden on corporations’ “political activity or speech” is minimal — they can easily set up political action committees for contributions from officers and shareholders. The court also stressed the acute need to limit corporate influence in politics because elected officials shape policies that determine winners and losers in fights over the state’s natural resources.

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