Montana Defies Supreme Court's Citizens United Case

In the Citizens United Case in 2010, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled corporations and unions have a constitutional right to spend unlimited money on political ads. State courts are expected to follow that principle. But in December, Montana's high court refused to go along. It argued Montana's history and demography make it different enough to deserve an exemption from the federal ruling.

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The presidential campaign is being fought under different campaign finance rules than ever before. That's because of the Citizens United case, the Supreme Court ruling that opened campaigns to corporate and union money. That was the federal ruling. But in apparent defiance of Citizens United, a state supreme court recently upheld a law barring corporate spending in elections. It's a century-old state law in Montana, and officials there are defending their state campaign finance rules on historical grounds.

NPR's Martin Kaste reports.

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MARTIN KASTE, BYLINE: Butte is a shadow of the mining boomtown it once was, a shrunken city framed by gargantuan holes in the ground. Looking down over this used-up landscape is a red brick mansion.

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KASTE: Inscribed over the front door are the initials W.A.C., that's William Andrews Clark, one of the "copper kings" who practically ran Montana in the 1890s.

JOHN THOMPSON: Come on in.

KASTE: Mr. Thompson?

John Thompson owns the house today. It's a bed and breakfast and also kind of museum to Gilded Age luxury.

THOMPSON: There are 32 rooms in the building, seven fireplaces and one ballroom. And two basements and an attic big enough to build an apartment in.

KASTE: The man who built this house was used to buying the things he wanted, including a seat in the U.S. Senate, which he tried to acquire by bribing state legislators. Thompson says that's how things were done in turn-of-the-century Montana.

THOMPSON: There was no rules whatsoever - money talked, no matter what form.

KASTE: It's a vision of the past that's shared by Steve Bullock, Montana's Democratic Attorney General.

STEVE BULLOCK: Our legislature, our judges, down to the local county assessors, were almost bought and paid for. Mark Twain even said that, you know, the amount of money coming in in Montana makes the smell of corruption almost sweet.

KASTE: So in 1912, Montana voters passed the Corrupt Practices Act, which barred corporations from spending money to promote or attack political candidates. That's the law that the State Supreme Court upheld in December. Bullock says the absence of corporate spending has been good for Montana politics.

THOMPSON: It really is the candidate doing the work in Montana that by and large has decided our elections. And as a result, we have higher voting levels, we have an expectation of a real engaged electorate - all of that could change.

JIM BOPP: There's nothing evil about spending money on an election.

KASTE: That's Jim Bopp, an attorney who worked on the winning side of Citizens United, and who now represents American Tradition Partnership, the main organization that's been challenging Montana's election spending laws. Bopp wouldn't let his clients be interviewed, but on its website, ATP says it's a group that's dedicated to fighting, quote, "the radical environmental agenda."

Looking back on Montana history, Jim Bopp has a very different take on the political influence enjoyed by the copper kings.

BOPP: What I saw is a situation in which 80 percent of the people in Montana, their employment depended on this industry. When that situation occurs in any state, people bend over backwards to help those industries because they like to be employed.

KASTE: The argument over historical corruption may not matter either way. The U.S. Supreme Court has now issued a stay - essentially suspending the Montana Supreme Court's decision. But the stay also came with an intriguing note by Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer. In it, they express interest in using the Montana case as an opportunity to review Citizens United, a possibility that's offered a glimmer of hope to the critics of that ruling.

Still, for the time being, Montana's state elections have now been opened up to independent spending by corporations. In the capital, Helena, retired State Supreme Court chief justice Karla Gray says it won't take that much money to have an effect.

KARLA GRAY: Nobody talks about millions in Montana, except for maybe a U.S. Senate race or something like that. I'm talking about, you know, perhaps $60,000, or 70.

KASTE: Gray is especially worried about what the money might do to state judicial races. But even so, she says she was not happy about what the Montana Supreme Court did.

GRAY: I thought the court was obligated to follow Citizens United. It is incumbent upon a state supreme court to follow that ruling - like it or not.

KASTE: Even those who were pleased by the Montana Supreme Court's decision admit privately that the state is on very shaky legal ground. But for them, the legal case is secondary to the political statement being made by one state's defiance of Citizens United.

Martin Kaste, NPR News.

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