Montana Politics

Dec 27, 2010 6:59 PM by Marnee Banks (Helena)

Montana Politics 2010: Corporate Spending Ruling

Montana's News Station is highlighting some of the top stories that shaped Montana politics in 2010. Today we look at #5 on the list.

October 18, 2010: District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena has struck down Montana's nearly century-old ban on corporate political spending.

Sherlock ruled that corporations can spend money in state campaigns as an expression of free speech.

The ruling came down on Monday in favor of Western Tradition Partnership, Champion Painting, and the Montana Shooting Sports Association. The three businesses had asked the court to find Montana's ban on corporate spending unconstitutional.

Bullock defended Montana's law in court several week ago, stating that such spending leads to corruption.

After the judge's ruling was announced, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock issued this statement:

"Our state has a unique and compelling story where corporations, spending freely from their coffers, corrupted the political process. That history led to the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, a law that has served us well for nearly a century.

Since that time, Montana's elections have been among the most fair and open in the country. Everyone has had an opportunity to have their voices heard - Republican and Democrat, business and labor union, conservative and liberal.

This isn't just about our history: two former secretaries of state and other experts in the field testified that an influx of corporate spending will corrupt the political process and drown out the voices of everyday Montanans. The facts in this case are markedly different from those considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United. Those differences still matter.

While I have a great deal of respect for the district court, the people of Montana have long said that its citizens, not corporations, should decide the outcome of elections. We knew that this case would ultimately reach the Montana Supreme Court, and I will continue to stand up for the people's law and appeal the district court's decision."

In his ruling, Sherlock wrote that the First Amendment to the US Constitution protects the political speech of corporations, including their right to make independent expenditures to support or oppose political candidates or parties.

This means corporations can buy ads advocating for or against a candidate or issue without being subject to campaign spending laws.

(First Report: Monday Afternoon) Helena District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock has declared unconstitutional a Montana law that prohibits corporations from making campaign expenditures to support or oppose political candidates or political parties.

In January, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Citizens United vs Federal Election Commission that corporations can spend money advocating for or against a federal candidate or issue. That ruling is now being used as the basis to challenge Montana corporate campaign spending laws.

Western Tradition Partnership, Montana Shooting Sports Association, and Champion Painting had petitioned Judge Jeffrey Sherlock to strike down Montana's ban on corporate political spending.

In his first court case since becoming the Montana Attorney General, Steve Bullock argued the case, saying that by allowing corporations like W.T.P. to spend in campaigns without accountability, it will lead to corruption.

Plaintiff attorney Margot Barg had argued that it was an issue of giving corporations the right to speak freely, saying that the Citizens United case gives corporations the same voice that individuals and the media already have.

"Judges, local representatives, commissioners, they all make decisions that impact corporations and yet they [corporations] cannot say anything to impact elections," Barg testified.

Bullock testified, "Corporations are not censored here. They speak freely. They are involved in every one of the elections, but they speak accountably."