June 27 2012 08:44 AM

Majority strikes sown Montana law and upholds the travesty of Citizens United


If June were December and the U.S. Supreme Court were Santa Claus, then we, the public, got a couple of gifts on Monday—a shiny little pony and a big gob of pony crap.

The beautiful beast was the nearly total takedown of an Arizona law that threatened the civil rights of an entire segment of the state’s population, as well as Latinos nationwide, had the law been upheld and allowed to spread to other states. The equine excrement was the reversal of a Montana Supreme Court ruling that had upheld a longstanding state law banning corporate financial influence on elections, a de facto solidifying of the 2010 Citizens United ruling that gave wealthy people who own corporations unprecedented power to corrupt the democratic process and drown out the voices of average Americans.

One hundred years. One hundred years. That’s how long Montanans had managed to keep corporate money out of their elections. No more. In 2010, after the Citizens United ruling, a conservative group called Western Tradition Partnership (WTP) challenged Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, which was passed by voter initiative and aimed to stop the mining industry’s hostile takeover of state government. Formed by two former Republican state legislators in 2008, WTP was legally allowed to conceal the sources of its funding, but we know that among the group’s aims was opposition to the protection of certain swaths of resource-rich land from mining and opposition to certain attempts to regulate the energy industry.

In 2010, according to the Helena (Mont.) Independent Record, a state investigator obtained a written presentation by WTP to potential donors that said, “If you decide to support the program, no politician, no bureaucrat and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.” And no member of the public.

WTP’s challenge of the Corrupt Practices Act eventually reached the Montana Supreme Court, which ruled last year that the law should stand despite Citizens United, and the group, renamed American Tradition Partnership for the larger stage, appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court. In a 5-4 decision on Monday, the court ruled that Citizens United unequivocally trumps state law, effectively concluding that the tsunami of fat-cat money spent on elections since 2010 is A-OK and dooming any attempt by states to turn back the tide.

“Here,” writes Amy Davidson, senior editor at The New Yorker, “the conservatives on the Court prove to be peculiarly indifferent to hard-learned lessons of history.”

On scotusblog.com, Lyle Dennisten notes that the Supreme Court left “no doubt that [it] has no intention of putting new restraints on political campaign spending, despite the huge outflow of cash this year….” He, as others have, says the issue of campaign finance has only two paths from here: replacing pro-unlimited-spending justices with justices who favor restraints and heading into a consolation battle over transparency—at least forcing big-money donors to reveal their contributions. Dennisten leaves out a third path, probably because it has no chance of happening: a constitutional amendment placing strict limits on political contributions and spending.

Short of that, this is our new reality, where corporations are equal to people and money is equal to speech. On its face, it’s unfair, and, we’d suppose that it violates the constitutional guarantee of equal treatment under the law. Equating money with speech means that the more money a person has—and, now, a corporation—the louder his or her political speech. As MSNBC’s Rachel Maddow rightly said on Monday, the only way for you, an average citizen of modest means, to counter a political advertisement paid for by a wealthy person or corporation is to buy an equally well-produced advertisement saying the opposite. But you can’t do that because you can’t afford it. Your voice is effectively drowned out. The free-speech benefits in this sort of legalized corruption are far outweighed by the fact that there’s unequal access to the megaphone.

There had been faint hope that the court would’ve been shaken by the spectacular effects of Citizens United. ’Twas not to be. Now the only hope lies in electing of a string of presidents—beginning in November with a second term for Barack Obama— who’ll appoint justices who value the dignity of the common individual over the interests of people and organizations with money to burn.

What do you think? Write to editor@sdcitybeat.com.