The Montana Supreme Court on Friday upheld a ban on corporate political expenditures in state elections, which came under fire after the U.S. Supreme Court's controversial Citizens United ruling.
The court held the 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission did not render the Montana ban unconstitutional, reversing a lower court's ruling.
The Citizens United ruling held that corporations had the same First Amendment rights as people and that political spending was free speech. The ruling allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence elections, so long as their actions were not directly coordinated with a candidate’s campaign.
Western Tradition Partnership, a conservative political group now known as American Tradition Partnership, Champion Painting Inc., and the Montana Shooting Sports Association Inc., had challenged the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act after the Citizens United ruling. They claimed the law violated corporation's First Amendment rights.
But the Montana Supreme Court disagreed, ruling Montana had a compelling interest to impose a ban on corporate political expenditures.
"Montana, or more accurately its voters, clearly had a compelling interest to enact the challenged statute in 1912,” wrote Chief Justice Mike McGrath for the Court’s the majority opinion. “At that time the State of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests.”
“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,” he continued. “Issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government. Clearly, Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.”
“Citizens United,” Chief Justice McGrath declared, “does not compel a conclusion that Montana’s law prohibiting independent political expenditures by a corporation related to a candidate is unconstitutional.”
The American Tradition Partnership has not said whether it would appeal the ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We’re reviewing our options,” Donald Ferguson, executive director of the group, told the Gazette State Bureau. “We feel Montanans do not forfeit their freedoms of speech and association simply because they associate as a corporation.”