Montana court defends law defying Citizens United

  • An editorial cartoon depicting the average Montana citizen dwarfed by King Copper was printed in the Montana Lookout newspaper in 1910.

    Carole Mackin
  • Montana Supreme Court Justices James Nelson, left, and Brian Morris listen to Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock last September in Helena. The court was hearing arguments over the state's 1912 Corrupt Practices Act. On Dec. 30, it ruled the ban on corporate political spending should remain in place.

    AP Photo/Matt Gouras

Judge William Clancy, who presided over a state district court in Butte, Mont., was a heavy drinker who often dozed off during lawyers' arguments; when awake, he showered a spittoon with tobacco juice gobs. Another Butte judge, Edward Harney, cheated on his wife with an employee of a mining company that was a defendant in his courtroom. He ruled for his lover's company, but the Montana Supreme Court eventually ordered a new trial, denouncing Harney's conduct as "a carnival of drunkenness and debauchery."

Both judges were elected with the help of a powerful mining baron's political machine. In return, in hundreds of lawsuits, they allowed him to hijack a fortune in ore from other people's mines.

All this occurred in the early 1900s, and it helped inspire Montana voters to pass a 1912 ballot initiative, the Corrupt Practices Act, which prohibits corporate expenditures on state political campaigns. Yet the issue came up again Dec. 30, when the Montana Supreme Court ruled on a lawsuit challenging the 1912 law. A right-wing advocacy group, Western Tradition Partnership (now called American Tradition Partnership), argued that the law should be junked because of the U.S. Supreme Court's sweeping 2010 decision in the Citizens United case, which held that corporations have a First Amendment right to make unlimited campaign contributions.

Twenty-four other states have repealed or revamped their campaign finance laws to comply with Citizens United, but the Montana Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, stood firm, finding that Montana's unique history of corruption in the era of the Copper Kings justifies the state's exemption from its reach. According to the Montana court, Citizens United doesn't make all prohibitions of corporate campaign contributions unconstitutional, and the state's chronic "issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development ... and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government."

The Montana Supreme Court ruling emphasized the need to protect the integrity of the state's judicial elections. The majority opinion, written by Chief Justice Mike McGrath, said judicial elections "would be particularly vulnerable to large levels of independent spending ... (and) litigants appearing before a judge elected after a large expenditure of corporate funds could legitimately question whether their due process rights were adversely impacted." A dissenting opinion by Justice James Nelson -- who attacked the reasoning behind Citizens United but said he was "duty-bound" to apply it in Montana -- warned that thanks to the U.S. Supreme Court, "judicial elections will become little better than the corporate wars that elections for partisan officers have already become."