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American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock

Supreme Court Strikes Down Montana Campaign Finance Law

    

The U.S. Supreme Court struck down a Montana campaign finance law that for more than a century had limited corporate contributions to campaigns.

Background

The U.S. Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United v. FEC opened the door for increased corporate spending on elections, in part ruling that independent expenditures do not necessarily give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption. The decision has led to the rise of so-called super PACs, political action committees that aggregate large sums of money from individual and corporate donors, and then undertake activities solely in the super PAC’s name, thus shielding its donors from identification.

Since that ruling in 2010, corporate spending on campaigns has skyrocketed, with much of the spending being made anonymously. In response, several states enacted their own campaign finance laws, seeking to regulate the conduct of campaigns as permitted by federal law, arguing a compelling state interest in these restrictions.

Montana law has long provided that a “corporation may not make … an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or political party.” The Montana Supreme Court upheld that law against a challenge that it violated Citizens United. The U.S. Supreme Court, by a vote of 5-4 and over a bitter dissent, summarily overturned the Montana law as running afoul of Citizens United.

AARP Foundation Litigation attorneys had filed a friend-of-the-court brief on behalf of AARP and 13 other organizations that pointed out that undisclosed corporate money in elections gives rise to corruption and the appearance of corruption, and the brief noted the more than $100 million spent by corporations to influence elections in 2010 alone. The brief pointed out why corporations would try to make those investments/expenditures anonymously, pointing out for example a public relations disaster that occurred when Target Corp. donated $150,000 to a political group that supported candidates opposed to gay rights, leading to front-page stories about boycotts of Target by people who supported gay rights. “To understand why corporations wishing to influence elections would seek anonymity with respect to their political activities, Target’s experience is ‘Exhibit A,’” argued the brief.

The dissenting justices urged both that Citizens United be overturned and argued that even if it stood, the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling upholding the Montana law should remain untouched. “That court concluded that the State had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations,” wrote the dissenters.

What’s at Stake

With hundreds of millions of dollars likely to be spent in the 2012 campaign cycle, it is important for voters to know who is financing which candidate and, therefore, where sympathies of candidates may lie. Allowing expenditures to be cloaked in anonymity gives rise if not to actual corruption, then certainly to the appearance of corruption, and is directly counter to the concept of a free and open democracy.

Case Status

American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock was decided by the U.S. Supreme Court.

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