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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.

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He said a review of federal records shows that of the $96 million contributed to the eight Republican Super PACs, less than14 percent came from corporations and less than 1 percent from public companies. “Clearly, the much predicted corporate tsunami that critics of Citizens United warned about simply did not occur,” he said in a statement.

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Montana Sen. Jon Tester predicted the ruling would “open the gates to even more out-of-state money from secretive special interests.”

“This decision rolls back 100 years of transparency in Montana, returning us to an era when millionaires and billionaires bought elections for themselves,” he said. “That’s not free speech; it’s corruption.”

Although states and the federal government are free to restrict the amount of money corporations may contribute to a political candidate, they may not limit the amount of money a corporate spends on its own – independent of any candidate – to express political ideas in advertisements or other forms of political expression.

That was the central holding of Citizens United.

Campaign finance reform advocates say the decision opened the floodgates to corporate money and influence in elections, threatening to distort and corrupt the democratic process.

As evidence, they point to the increasing political clout of independent election spending groups and so-called super PACs during the current election.

Free speech advocates, who support the Citizens United decision, say corporations – like individuals – are entitled to speak on matters of public concern without facing prior approval or censorship by the government.

At issue in the Montana case was whether the state supreme court correctly applied the Citizens United decision in a lawsuit challenging Montana’s ban on independent political expenditures by corporations.

Under the Montana statute, corporations were only allowed to make political expenditures with funds raised and distributed through political action committees or PACs.

Following the Citizens United decision in 2010, three firms sued the state, charging the corporate ban on political spending was unconstitutional.

A state judge agreed, but the Montana Supreme Court reversed.

The state high court vote was 5 to 2. “Unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history,” the court said.

The Montana high court drew a distinction between the complex federal campaign finance laws struck down in Citizens United and the Montana statute. The state court said Montana’s law was easy to follow and allowed corporate officers to make individual contributions and to channel political spending through PACs.

The state high court also emphasized Montana’s extensive history of corruption as a compelling reason justifying the continued necessity of the 1912 state law.

“The question then is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did,” the Montana justices asked.

It changed, according to five members of the US Supreme Court, in January 2010 when the Citizens United decision was announced and became the law of the land – including in Montana.

Since the US Constitution applies to both the federal and state governments, state courts are required to uphold Supreme Court decisions even if a majority of state supreme court judges disagree with the underlying ruling.

When state courts fail to uphold a US Supreme Court precedent, the high court sometimes takes the unusual step of summarily reversing the state court. A summary reversal means that the Supreme Court decides the issue without the benefit of full briefing and oral argument. In effect, the court is saying that the Montana Supreme Court’s mistake was so clear and so blatant that further consideration is unnecessary.

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