HELENA — Attorney General Steve Bullock has urged the U.S. Supreme Court to uphold Montana’s century-old ban on corporate spending in political races and reject an attempt to dismantle it.
In a brief filed Friday for the state, Bullock and two associates asked the court to deny the attempt by American Tradition Partnership and others to review and overturn the Montana Supreme Court’s decision in December that upheld the state Corrupt Practices Act.
“No precedent of this court supports summary invalidation of a long-established state law so critical to its republican form of government,” wrote Bullock and attorneys Anthony Johnstone and James Molloy for the state.
American Tradition Partnership, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, sought to throw out the Montana law after the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United decision that granted political speech rights to corporations.
However, the Montana Supreme Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the state law and ruled that corporations aren’t deprived of political speech here.
Corporations can’t make independent political expenditures from their treasuries in state political races under the Corrupt Practices Act, the court said. But they can form political committees, funded with voluntary donations from executives, employees and shareholders, and donate to campaigns.
After the Montana ruling, American Tradition Partnership successfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to temporarily stop the enforcement of the state law until it could file a petition, known as a writ of certiorari, to appeal and seek reversal of the decision. The U.S. Supreme Court isn’t obliged to take up the case.
In response, Bullock and the state lawyers urged the court to deny the petition, or, in the alternative, to grant certiorari and call for a full briefing with arguments on the merits.
“The Montana Supreme Court applied rather than defied Citizens United,” the state brief said. “This case is distinguishable from that case based on the law at issue and the facts on the record.”
The state attorneys said there are “meaningful qualitative differences between the many substantial burdens imposed on corporate campaign speech by the federal law at issue in Citizens United and the minimal burdens imposed on similar speech by the state law at issue here.”
Bullock and the other attorneys said “corporate independent expenditures can corrupt. Unusually compelling interests motivated the adoption and administration of the Corrupt Practices Act in Montana’s state and local elections and those interests remain today.”
Montana voters in 1912 passed the Corrupt Practices Act as a ballot initiative in reaction to the inordinate domination that rival copper mining company owners William Clark, F. Augustus Heinze and Marcus Daly — known as the Copper Kings — had over state politics and government, the state attorneys said.
“No state in the union has detailed a more compelling threat of corruption by corporate campaign expenditures than Montana, and the unrefuted testimony presented below establishes that the corruption threat continues against Montana’s state and local election,” the attorneys wrote. “That threat includes the domination of Montana’s small republic by out-of-state foreign corporations.”
They quoted statements that Bullock’s office obtained from historians, former elected officials and a campaign finance expert about Montana’s electoral experiences.
“State elections are many orders of magnitude smaller than federal elections,” the state said. “The $12 million annual budget of Citizens United, a relatively small player in national politics, is roughly double the total amount raised by every state executive, legislative and judicial candidate over a biennial election cycle in Montana. Yet state and local policy may be no less consequential financially to corporations — and may exert no less a pull to harness public policy to private ends.”
The brief added that state elections are “distinctly susceptible to corrupting influences.”
“Little has changed about Montana’s natural resource wealth in the past century, but much has changed in its politics,” the state attorneys said. “The Corrupt Practices Act ushered in a robust form of grass-roots politics, including participation by businesses large and small. ... That law’s spirit of accountability eventually led to a new Montana Constitution. That constitution makes paramount the rights of citizen participation in and public information about government proceedings.”
The brief said American Tradition Partnership and the other parties have made “an extraordinary request for summary invalidation of a century-old law in the absence of full briefing and a review of the record.”
“Whether or not this case might be a proper vehicle for reconsidering Citizens United, it is ill-suited to summary reversal given the lack of a record establishing any substantial burden on petitioners’ free speech rights,” the state attorneys said.
American Tradition Partnership, based in Washington, D.C., bills itself as “a no-compromise grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda.”