HELENA - Saying a U.S. Supreme Court ruling trumps Montana's unique historical circumstances, a Helena district judge Monday threw out as unconstitutional the state's 1912 law banning direct corporate spending for or against political candidates or political parties.
The decision frees corporations to immediately spend as much as they want for or against candidates in elections here. Political observers were uncertain of the ruling's impact in the remaining two weeks of this election campaign.
The Montana law previously banned direct corporate spending for or against candidates.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock ruled that the voter-passed law was unconstitutional under the U.S Supreme Court's January decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Shortly after the decision, state Attorney General Steve Bullock said he will appeal to the Supreme Court.
Sherlock said the state ban on direct corporate political spending, "insofar as it prevents corporations from making independent expenditures to support or oppose political candidates or political parties, is declared unconstitutional."
The Helena judge said he agreed with the reasoning of U.S. District Judge Paul Magnuson, who found a similar ban in Minnesota unconstitutional. Magnuson said the Supreme Court's decision in Citizens United "is unequivocal: The government may not prohibit independent and indirect corporate expenditures on political speech."
Sherlock ruled in favor of Western Tradition Partnership, a conservative think tank and activist group; Champion Painting, a Bozeman business; and Montana Shooting Sports Association, a Missoula gun rights advocacy group.
"The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from the government, not to shield politicians from criticism," said Donald Ferguson, Western Tradition Partnership's executive director. "The court has restored fairness and balance to elections by allowing employers to speak freely about the radical environmentalist candidates and issues that threaten your right to earn a living."
Bullock maintained that the historic Montana law should stand, regardless of the U.S. Supreme Court ruling, because of the unique circumstances here that led to its passage. Montana voters adopted the ban to limit the inordinate influence of the copper mining companies and their owners, known as the Copper Kings, over Montana politics more than a century ago.
"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," Bullock said. "The facts in this case are markedly different from those considered by the U.S. Supreme Court."
Sherlock acknowledged the historic political influence of the Copper Kings and the anti-corruption interest voters had in passing the ban on direct corporate political spending. However, he didn't find it sufficient to justify the restrictions on the plaintiffs' First Amendment rights.
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The judge quoted from an affidavit provided by Bullock from Harry Fritz, a retired University of Montana history professor, who discussed the political influence of the Copper Kings.
"The court has already quoted portions of the affidavit submitted by Dr. Fritz showing the pernicious influence of the Copper Kings and their various corporate alter egos," Sherlock said. "However, the Copper Kings are a long time gone to their tombs."
In addition, he said the U.S. Supreme Court addressed that very concern in Citizens United.
"In that case, the Supreme Court held that the anti-corruption interest is not sufficient to displace the speech here in question, noting that 26 states do not restrict independent expenditures by for-profit corporations," Sherlock said.
Western Tradition Partnership says it's "dedicated to fighting environmental extremism" and has been active in recent legislative campaigns. It sends questionnaires to candidates and at times sends information to voters attacking or praising the candidates based on their answers to the questions.
The state's political practices commissioner is investigating whether Western Traditional Partnership is violating state law by not reporting its spending and source of funds.
Champion Painting is a Bozeman business owned by Kenneth Champion, a Bozeman Tea Party activist and 2008 Republican legislative candidate. Champion, owner of the one-person business, has said he wants to be free to spend corporate funds politically.
Reaction from the two major state political parties varied.
"This just drowns out the voice that everyday Montanans have enjoyed for the past 100 years," said Martin Kidston, spokesman for the state Democratic Party. "We believe that people, not corporations should decide elections. This effectively allows corporations or activist groups posing as corporations to purchase elections by presenting an unbalanced argument to the public to suit their own interest."
Over at the Republican Party, executive director Bowen Greenwood said: "We're watching it very closely. If that actually happens, we'll be very worried about what labor unions like the SEIU do."
Missoulian State Bureau reporter Charles S. Johnson can be reached at (406) 447-4066 or at email@example.com.