So this is interesting. The Montana Supreme Court basically threw down a challenge to the US Supreme Court to revisit the Citizens United decision, by upholding a state law that mandates corporate contribution limits.
Montana voters in 1912 passed an initiative barring direct corporate contributions to political candidates and parties — a law that, like those in many states across the country, was undone by the U.S. Supreme Court in 2010. The controversial decision gave corporations the same 1st Amendment rights as citizens and allowed businesses to freely spend their way into the nation’s political debates.
Now the Montana Supreme Court has issued a forceful rebuff of that decision.
In a new opinion drawing on Montana’s coal and copper mining history, the court upheld the state’s century-old corporate contribution limits, concluding that “the corporate power that can be exerted with unlimited political spending is still a vital interest to the people of Montana.”
The decision, handed down last week, applies only to state elections in Montana. But if it is appealed as expected, the case could provide the long-awaited vehicle critics have sought for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue decided in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.
I don’t know that much has changed with the composition of the Court to actually get anything done if they revisit Citizens United. The one thing that has changed is a move from theory to practice. Instead of wondering about the impact of Citizens United on elections, we see it plainly; SuperPACs that use unlimited and undisclosed donations to neutralize opponents and purchase elections. We’ve seen this over and over again since 2010. And the high-minded positions of the Court, which actually favored transparency and disclosure, haven’t come to pass.
So it’s at least possible that Anthony Kennedy, at least, would look at the evidence and decide that transparency must be part of the campaign finance system. I don’t know that this court ruling offers a vehicle for that, and I can’t see Kennedy moving all the way to upholding the Montana law, essentially striking down Citizens United. But stranger things have happened. And of course, we don’t know when this would get to the Supreme Court, and who would sit on it at that time. At the very least, a favorable ruling here would allow states to ban corporate contributions or limit them in state and local elections.
This seems like a good complement to the Move to Amend movement for a Constitutional amendment to end corporate personhood. The City Council in Los Angeles has endorsed this with a resolution, among others, and New York City may be next. (UPDATE: The New York City Council just passed their resolution.)
But while that longer-term movement works through legislatures and Congress, this court ruling could accelerate the process.
By the way, this was part of Montana Justice James C. Nelson’s DISSENT in the case:
Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.
Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.