Citizens United: Montana Fights Back


Joining us from Montana as our special guest blogger is Montana Cowgirl. You can read more of her blog on Montana Cowgirl . This post puts in perspective, the state’s decision to fight the U.S. Supreme court’s ruling on Citizens United.

All eyes are on the Big Sky state after Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock’s huge win against shadow political groups. These groups tried to overturn Montana’s centuries-old ban on corporate spending in elections.  Bullock beat them down.

A few years ago the U.S. Supreme Court gave it’s full seal of approval to corporate influence in elections, in the infamous Citizens United Case. Since then, Montana has been the only state in America with the backbone to wage a war to defend it’s own state laws prohibiting such corporate spending.   Our laws date back to 1912, and were passed in response to Copper Kings who tried to buy the entire state government with bribes.

The ruling by the Montana Supreme Court in Western Tradition Partnership, Inc. v. State of Montana is a ray of hope for American election law.  During the 2010 elections, giant industries descended on Montana and spent huge sums of unregulated, undisclosed money, as much as $6 million, to elect Republican legislative candidates. The result was the most lopsided election in Montana history.

A big shout-out to Chief Justice Mike McGrath, who found an artful way to weave an opinion out of delicate cloth, upholding Montana’s ban on corporate money passed by voters in 1912, by finding meaningful distinctions between Montana’s law and the federal law that was held unconstitutional by the US Supreme Court in Citizens.

Montana’s Supreme Court ruled that Citizens United does not apply to state elections.   The Citizens United court went on and on about how difficult it is for corporations to use political action committees (PACs) to participate in the political system. Here in Montana, that’s just not the case.  Anyone can form a state PAC by filling out a simple form that only takes a minute or two to fill out.

As Montana Supreme Court Judge Jim Nelson wrote in dissent, “the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans. The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”

Citizens United will still apply to federal elections in Montana.  So, candidates for the U.S. House and Senate in Montana will still face millions of dollars in corporate-funded special interest attack ads.

Bullock should be proud of having argued a landmark decision that will be remembered in Montana for many decades. He is running for Governor in Montana on the Democratic ticket.

Montana Commissioner of Political Practices