Gazette opinion: Montana history supports court's anti-corruption ruling

2012-01-05T00:10:00Z Gazette opinion: Montana history supports court's anti-corruption ruling The Billings Gazette
January 05, 2012 12:10 am

More than a century of Montana history figures prominently in the state Supreme Court’s Dec. 30 decision to uphold our voter-approved law banning direct corporate contributions to political candidates.

Chief Justice Mike McGrath cited Montana historians K. Ross Toole, C.B. Glassock, Michael Malone, Richard Roeder and Helen Fisk Sanders in summarizing the state’s compelling interest in restricting corporate finance of Montana politics.

Going back to the Copper King era before the turn of the 20th century, McGrath noted that mining entrepreneur F. Auguste Heinz routinely bribed Butte judges to decide cases in his favor against the Anaconda Copper Co. (then controlled by Standard Oil). In 1903, Anaconda got the upper hand by closing down all its Montana operations, putting 80 percent of Montana workers out of a job. The company demanded that the governor call a special legislative session to enact a law that would allow Anaconda to avoid litigating before Butte judges. The governor and Legislature followed Anaconda’s dictate with a law that’s still on the books.

The corrupting influence of unlimited political spending was outrageously demonstrated by William A. Clark, another copper king, who literally bought a U.S. Senate seat three times — twice by bribing state legislators, who back then elected U.S. senators, and once by getting appointed by the lieutenant governor after the U.S. Senate refused to seat him.

Montanans subsequently amended the state constitution, providing the electorate with the power of initiative. The initiative process was used for numerous reforms to restore political power to the people of Montana, including the 1906 Corrupt Practices Act, which curtailed the spending that Clark epitomized.

The Anaconda Co. and its corporate descendents (such as Montana Power Co.) maintained great influence on Montana politics throughout most of the 20th century. However, corporate political action committee spending on campaigns and corporate lobbying had to be done under Montana law, which also requires disclosure of expenditures.

Western Tradition Partnership Inc. sued to overturn that century-old ban on unbridled corporate spending. Western Tradition has funded attack ads against Montana candidates and has promoted itself by promising donors anonymity in making contributions to influence elections.

Western Tradition, which recently changed its name to American Tradition Partnership, cited the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case. Before the Montana Supreme Court, Western Tradition also argued that contribution limits should be lifted because state disclosure laws would be sufficient to provide transparency. However, Western Tradition also is suing in state and federal courts to overturn Montana’s disclosure law.

The Montana Supreme Court’s decision makes sense. McGrath and Justices Jim Rice, Mike Wheat, Patricia Cotter and Brian Morris are correct that corporations can and do participate in Montana’s political processes under state laws. The court majority draws reasonable and practical distinctions between the Montana law and the Citizens United decision on federal law.

As McGrath wrote for the majority, “Clearly, the impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens. ... Montana has a compelling interest to impose the challenged rationally tailored statutory restrictions.”

The Montana Supreme Court’s decision could be appealed to federal court. But at least for the 2012 elections, it appears that Montana law will, once again, govern Montana politics. That’s a win for Montana voters. History and the Montana Supreme Court are on our side.

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