The Montana Supreme Court in Helena stands just off the main drag, dramatically called Last Chance Gulch Street. The picturesque setting is fitting for an institution that has just challenged the U.S. Supreme Court to a legal showdown on the enormously important question of whether corporations should have an unfettered right to dominate elections or whether citizens have the right to adopt commonsense protections to defend democratic government from corruption. Get the kids off the streets, because this could be an epic confrontation.
In upholding the section of Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act that restricts direct corporate political spending, the Montana Supreme Court attacked the Citizens United fiction that independent expenditures aren’t corrupting and that corporate political spending isn’t a danger to democratic government. The Montana jurists’ decision in Western Tradition Partnership states unequivocally, “The impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens.” The decision will no doubt be appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.
But two years after the Citizens United decision, there has been ample evidence of the harm it’s inflicted on our electoral system.
The history of corruption in Montana serves as a powerful reminder of why campaign-finance regulations—rules to protect the political marketplace being dominated by the winners in the economic marketplace—were adopted in the first place. The Montana jurists write, “If the statute has worked to preserve a degree of political and social autonomy, is the State required to throw away its protections because the shadowy backers of [Western Tradition Partnership] seek to promote their interests? ... We think not.”
When Montana’s anti-corruption laws were adopted in 1912, the state was riven with “rough contests for political and economic domination” primarily between out-of-state corporate interests. In those days, Standard Oil controlled most of the political interests and, according to historians, “’clearly dominated Montana’s economy and political order ... [and] local folks found themselves locked in the grip of a corporation controlled from Wall Street and insensitive to their concerns.’” A historian at the time described the control that corporations exercised over the state as ”thus converting the state government into a political instrument for the furthering and accomplishment of legislation and the execution of laws favorable to the absentee stockholders of the large corporations and inimical to the economic interests of the wage earning and farming classes ... in Montana.’”
Hearkening to the lessons of the past, the court writes that “this naked corporate manipulation of the very government ... of the State ultimately resulted in populist reforms that are still part of Montana law,” including the law at issue in the Western Tradition Partnership case. At the time the reforms were adopted, “the State of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests.” That is a remarkably clear and powerful statement that it was the de facto loss of a working democracy in Montana as a result of unchecked corporate interests that prompted the reform currently under challenge.
Have we changed so much from the beginning of the last century? Has self-interest dissipated over time? Are we so much better than our forebears that we consider ourselves and our institutions immune to the dangers of self-dealing? The events of the last few years can only serve to remind us what can happen when necessary protections are removed and leviathans are allowed to use their full economic power to gain and entrench greater political power. Perhaps this decision presages a new sanity leading to a new set of democratic protections, not just for the citizens of the Big Sky State but for us all.