The Supreme Court sided with a conservative group on Monday to invalidate a Montana law restricting corporate spending on elections that had been on the books for 100 years, saying it clearly conflicted with their ruling in Citizens United.
But in a dissent, Justice Stephen Breyer argued that Montana’s history of corruption is a sign of what’s to come thanks to the Supreme Court’s determination that bans on corporate election spending violate free speech.
Montana’s law had been upheld by the state Supreme Court after being challenged by a conservative group, American Tradition Partnership. But in a 5-4 ruling, the Supreme Court summarily reversed the lower court’s decision and invalidated the longstanding legislation.
The court determined in Citizens United that “independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” Montana’s attorney general claimed that the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act should stand as proof that the court’s argument had already been proven wrong over 100 years earlier, when the state’s mining billionaires blatantly bought off state legislators to further their interests. Most notoriously, copper king William Clark was appointed to the Senate by the state legislature, only to have his seating blocked by the Senate in Washington, D.C. over widespread evidence of bribery.
“Even if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court’s legal conclusion 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 wrote. “Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the State had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations.”
The court decided not to listen to arguments on the case, instead issuing a summary reversal of a Montana court’s decision to uphold the law. Critics of Citizens United had hoped the Supreme Court would give them a chance to make the case that the explosion of campaign spending in the last two years had proven their initial decision wrong.
Breyer wrote in a dissenting opinion that it would be a waste of time to listen to arguments on the case after Citizens United, given the conservative majority’s clear opinion, but he nonetheless indicated that the Montana decision foretold serious trouble for campaign finance.
“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.
Opponents and supporters of the decision alike acknowledged on Monday that the Supreme Court is unlikely to revisit its landmark 2010 ruling anytime soon, leaving the fight over campaign finance laws to continue elsewhere for now. James Bopp, the lead attorney arguing against Montana’s law, boasted to Mother Jones that the Supreme Court ruling was “a pretty dramatic door-slamming” on the notion justices might have any second thoughts on the matter.
In a statement condemning the Montana ruling, House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), called for a four-part strategy “to fight for disclosure and shine a bright light on secret donations; to amend the Constitution to overturn the crushing Citizens United ruling; to reform the system and empower small donors and the grassroots; and to elect reform-minded candidates and leaders to office.”
Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse (D-RI), who joined with Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) in backing Montana’s anti-corruption law, said the ruling should spur Congress to pass the DISCLOSE Act, which would require greater transparency for big money donors. It was filibustered by Republicans in the Senate in 2010.
“The conservative justices’ desire to double down in the face of this and keep the corporate money flowing represents a sad day in the history of the Court,” Whitehouse said in a statement. “It appears to be yet another demonstration of the politicization of the Court by the right-wing justices.”
Benjy Sarlin is a reporter for Talking Points Memo and co-writes the campaign blog, TPM2012. He previously reported for The Daily Beast/Newsweek as their Washington Correspondent and covered local politics for the New York Sun.