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Supreme Court strikes down Montana law, reaffirming Citizens United

Voting 5 to 4, the justices found, in a two-paragraph opinion, that the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling applied to a 100-year-old Montana anticorruption law barring corporate money in elections.

By Staff writer / June 25, 2012


In a reaffirmation of its controversial Citizens United decision on campaign finances, the US Supreme Court on Monday struck down as unconstitutional a 100-year old Montana law that banned corporations from spending money to influence state elections.

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The high court voted 5 to 4 to summarily reverse a December 2011 decision by the Montana Supreme Court upholding the state’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912.

The 1912 ban on corporate money in elections was passed to prevent a return of the widespread corruption of the “Copper Kings,” when wealthy and powerful mining interests in Montana routinely bought judges, controlled newspapers, and bribed lawmakers.

The majority justices dismissed the Montana high court’s decision in a two-paragraph opinion.

“The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the unsigned opinion said. “There can be no serious doubt that it does.”

In its 2010 decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the high court ruled that a federal ban on independent expenditures prior to an election violated the First Amendment rights of corporations and labor unions to engage in political speech free of government censorship.

“Political speech does not lose its First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation,” the court held.

The Montana high court ruled that the Citizens United decision did not apply in their state because Montana had a long history of election-related corruption that justified restrictions on corporate spending even a century later.

Justice Stephen Breyer said in a dissent that he would have voted to hear the Montana case and use the case as a vehicle to reconsider the underlying decision in Citizens United, but it was clear there were not enough votes to do that. Three other justices joined Breyer’s dissent; Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

“This court’s legal conclusions should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana,” Breyer said.

“Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the state had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations,” he wrote.

“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.”

The high court reversal brought praise from free speech advocates and disappointment from supporters of campaign finance reform efforts.

“The Supreme Court is broken,” said Russ Feingold, a former US senator from Wisconsin Senator and a champion of campaign finance reform. “The Supreme Court had a perfect chance today to clean up the corrupt mess created by their lawless Citizens United decision. Instead, they just shrugged.”

Senate Republican leader Mitch McConnell called the Supreme Court’s summary reversal “another important victory for freedom of speech.”


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