Massachusetts Supreme Court shoots down attempt to allow corporations to make political donations

By Asia Mayfield | Sep 21, 2018

BOSTON (Legal Newsline) – The Massachusetts Supreme Court rejected an appeal from two corporations that challenged the constitutionality of state law prohibiting political contributions.

On Sept. 6, the Supreme Court affirmed the Superior Court's ruling in favor of defendant Director of the Office of Campaign and Political Finance that granted the defendant summary judgment.

Plaintiffs 1A Auto Inc. and 126 Self Storage Inc. argued that the law curbing their ability to make political donations infringed on their rights to free speech and ignored their right to equal protection under the law. Nonprofit organizations, for instance, aren’t subject to the same restrictions.  

The Supreme Court cited in its ruling that in 1907, the U.S. Congress enacted the Tillman Act. It prohibited corporations from "mak[ing] a money contribution in connection with any election to any political office." 

The court noted that “the same year that Congress enacted the Tillman Act, the Massachusetts Legislature enacted its own law prohibiting corporations from making campaign contributions.”  

The plaintiffs are both corporations based in Massachusetts. 1A Auto Inc. sells automobile parts while 126 Self Storage Inc. manages a self-storage facility. The plaintiffs filed a complaint against the director of OCPF on Feb. 24, 2015.  

The Supreme Court remarked that the law was “justified by the government's important interest in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.” 

The plaintiffs' equal protection claim in the Superior Court failed because “the plaintiffs had failed to demonstrate that corporations and unions are similarly situated,” the ruling states.

The plaintiffs immediately appealed the Superior Court’s judgment to the Supreme Court.

The Supreme Court remarked that: “Political contributions from corporations are prohibited not only under Massachusetts law... but also under Federal law... as well as under the laws of 21 other states.”  

The laws have been tested many times. Courts have found that bans served “four important government interests,” the ruling states. Chiefly, the bans serve as a way to shield against corruption.  

Corporations can’t contribute to a political campaign, but they can make independent expenditures. That means that they can promote a political candidate as long as they do it openly and independently. They can’t associate themselves with the campaign.

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