Mont. ballot initiative advocates ban on corporate money in elections

Jessica M. Karmasek Jul. 12, 2012, 12:50pm


HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline) - The Montana Secretary of State on Wednesday officially qualified for the state's November ballot an initiative advocating for a ban on corporate money in elections.

The "Prohibition on Corporate Contributions and Expenditures in Montana Elections Act" would make it state policy that corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights, that money is not speech.

It also would charge Montana's congressional delegation to support an amendment to the U.S. Constitution to nullify the U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC.

"Montana is leading the country in standing up to a wrongheaded Supreme Court ruling, and I think we'll see other states and cities following close behind," Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, said in a statement Wednesday.

Common Cause is one of two groups helping to build a grassroots movement to reverse Citizens United.

Both it and Free Speech For People have been working to support "Stand with Montanans," a statewide petition campaign backed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.

The campaign gathered more than 40,000 signatures from state voters to place the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.

"The national significance of what is happening in Montana is enormous. The people of Montana are standing up to Citizens United and the serious threat it presents to our democracy," John Bonifaz, executive director of Free Speech, said in a statement.

"During the first presidential election year following that ruling, voters will have the opportunity to say 'enough' and to demand a constitutional amendment that will restore democracy to the people."

Last month, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Montana's campaign finance law, arguing that its 2010 decision in Citizens United required it to do so.

The Montana Supreme Court had ruled the decision was not in conflict with a state law that was challenged by a group of corporations. The Corrupt Practices Act prohibits corporate contributions in state political campaigns.

In its June 25 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to reverse the Montana Supreme Court's decision.

"The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law," according to the Court's one-page, per curiam majority opinion.

"There can be no serious doubt that it does."

Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy made up the majority. Justice Stephen Breyer issued a short dissent, in which justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.

Breyer said he would have voted for review of the issue but, given the majority opinion, decided not to.

"(E)ven 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."

In a statement released shortly after, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock called the Court's ruling a "sad day for our democracy."

"I am very disappointed in what the U.S. Supreme Court's decision means for state and local elections in Montana -- and for our entire nation," the attorney general said.

"One hundred years ago, Montanans passed an initiative to protect democracy, to give everyday people a voice that would no longer be silenced by a sea of corporate money. Their wisdom and the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 have served Montana well for over a century, and could have provided the Court with the opportunity to revisit some of the fundamental fallacies underlying the Citizens United decision."

The U.S. Supreme Court's ruling in favor of Citizens United stemmed from a dispute over whether the non-profit corporation could air a film critical of current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The decision infuriated President Barack Obama, who criticized the majority in a State of the Union Address.

The decision held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited because of the First Amendment.

Citing that decision, a Montana state court declared the CPA unconstitutional, but the state's Supreme Court overturned that decision Dec. 30.

In light of the Citizens United ruling, most states with laws on corporate spending bans stopped enforcing their own restrictions.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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