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Mont. SC upholds ban on direct corporate contributions

By John O'Brien | Jan 3, 2012

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock represented the State.

HELENA, Mont. (Legal Newsline) - The U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 ruling on corporate campaign spending is not in conflict with a state election law in Montana, the state's supreme court has ruled.

A group of business organizations led by Western Tradition Partnership filed a lawsuit challenging the state's Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits corporate contributions in state political campaigns. The U.S. Supreme Court held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited because of the First Amendment.

A state court declared the CPA unconstitutional, but the state Supreme Court overturned on Friday.

"Even if (the CPA) applies directly to WTP, WTP can still speak through its own political committee/PAC as hundreds of organizations do on an ongoing basis," Justice Mike McGrath wrote.

"Unlike the federal law PACs considered in Citizens United, under Montana law political committees are easy to establish and easy to use to make independent expenditures for political speech."

The 5-4 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 ruling overturned a ban on spending in support of or in opposition to a candidate (i.e. advertising), but kept in tact a law that forbids companies from donating funds directly from their treasuries to candidates.

"Some members of the public might consider Hillary to be insightful and instructive; some might find it to beneither high art nor a fair discussion on how to set the Nation's course; still others simply might suspend judgment on these points but decide to think more about issuesand candidates," Justice Anthony Kennedy wrote.

"Those choices and assessments, however, are not for the Government to make."

McGrath wrote that the district court misconstrued the Citizens United decision in that it considered the constitutionality of federal statutes and regulations prohibiting corporations from "electioneering."

Advertising for federal elections through a PAC was difficulent because of burdensome regulations, the U.S. Supreme Court said. McGrath and the majority found that not to be the case in Montana.

Justices Brian Morris, Patricia Cotter, Michael Wheat and Jim Rice joined McGrath in the majority. Dissenting were justices Beth Baker, James Nelson.

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