It is rare – very rare – that a state Supreme Court rises up on its hind legs and says to the United States Supreme Court we think you blew it.
Yet, that is pretty much what the seven member Montana Supreme Court said just before the New Year with a decision that seems sure to get the ultra-controversial Citizens United corporate campaign finance case back before John Roberts and Company very soon.
Citizens United is the case, you will recall, that President Obama denounced in his State of the Union speech. The U.S. Supreme Court’s January 2010 decision, decided 5-4, not only overturned a century of settled campaign finance law, but served to midwife the unprecedented level of unregulated and mostly undisclosed spendingof the so called Super PAC’s in the current Republican presidential primary process.
According to recent news reports, Newt Gingrich was on the blunt end of more than $4 million in such spending by a group with close ties to Mitt Romney that certainly contributed, if not caused, Gingrich’s dramatic shellacking in the Iowa caucuses. This political nuclear warfare has now moved on to South Carolinawhere Super PAC’s aligned with Gingrich, Rick Santorum and other candidates are going after Romney.
As Romney might say, “politics ain’t bean bags,” so what’s the problem here? The Montana Supreme Court tried to answer that question in its recent ruling involving similar, shadowy, state-level, secret groups intent on influencing election outcomes in a state that historically knows a thing or two about political corruption.
The Montana Court, in a 5-2 decision, upheld the constitutionality of the state’s 99 year old ban on corporate contributions in state races. In doing so, Chief Justice Mike McGrath delved deeply into the history of political corruption in Big Sky Country citing historical works by the great Montana historians K. Ross Toole and Mike Malone. The Judge referenced the notorious Montana “war of the cooper kings,” the extraordinary corporate influence that the Anaconda Mining Company once held over Montana, and the notorious case of William Andrews Clarkwho used his vast corporate wealth to bribe his way into the United States Senate. Here’s one section of McGrath’s opinion:
“W.A. Clark, who had amassed a fortune from the industrial operations in Butte, set his sights on the United States Senate. In 1899, in the wake of a large number of suddenly affluent members, the Montana Legislature elected Clark to the U.S. Senate. Clark admitted to spending $272,000 in the effort and the estimated expense was over $400,000. Complaints of Clark’s bribery of the Montana Legislature led to an investigation by the U.S. Senate in 1900. The Senate investigating committee concluded that Clark had won his seat through bribery and unseated him. The Senate committee ‘expressed horror at the amount of money which had been poured into politics in Montana elections…and expressed its concern with respect to the general aura of corruption in Montana.’”
Chief Justice McGrath then continued his fascinating history lesson, “In a demonstration of extraordinary boldness, Clark returned to Montana, caused the Governor to leave the state on a ruse and, with the assistance of the supportive Lt. Governor, won appointment to the very U.S. Senate seat that had just been denied him. When the Senate threatened to investigate and unseat Clark a second time, he resigned. Clark eventually won his Senate seat after spending enough on political campaigns to seat a Montana Legislature favorable to his candidacy.”
You have to wonder if John Roberts or Samuel Alito has ever read that little bit of American history. The Montana law upheld in the state court’s decision was passed in the wake of the Clark scandal and has been on the books for nearly a century, a detail with wicked similarity to the Teddy Roosevelt-era federal law banning corporate money that was overturned in Citizens United.
In his opinion in the Montana case, McGrath asks the obvious question that applies at both the state and federal levels. “The question then, is when in the last 99 years did Montana lose the power or interest sufficient to support the statute, if it ever did. If the statute has worked to preserve a degree of political and social autonomy is the State required to throw away its protections?”
The group that sought to skirt the Montana corporate ban wasn’t very subtle about its aims. “As you know,” the group called American Traditions Partnership said in its appeal for money, “Montana has very strict limits on contributions to candidates, but there is no limit to how much you can give to this program. No politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you helped make this program possible.”
American Traditions has said it will appeal the Montana decision.
Two Montana Supreme Court judges dissented and made the case, as indeed may be all too correct, that a state level court is bound to live with a U.S. Supreme Court decision, even as it tries to reason its way around why a state has a compelling interest in regulating its own elections with laws based on its own unique history.
But even in dissent, Montana Justice James C. Nelson expressed outrage at the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 decision. “Corporations are not persons,” Nelson wrote. “Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government.”
Incidentally, Nelson was born in Moscow, Idaho and graduated from the University of Idaho.
The faux talk show host Stephen Colbert has created his own Super PAC to poke serious fun at this supremely serious business. Even the name of Colbert’s PAC, - “Making a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow” PAC – is an effort to show how the uplifting sounding names of these entities usually hide real motives. They might better be called “The Committee to Assault Mitt Romney” or “The Barack Obama Walks on Water PAC.”
The whole point here – re-enforced by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United – is secrecy and unlimited money.
Colbert’s PAC, to make a point with absurdity, recently put up television ads supporting the owner’s side in their dispute with the N.B.A. players association. As the New York Times reported in a fascinating magazine cover story on Colbert last Sunday:
“These [ads] were also sponsored by Americans for a Better Tomorrow, Tomorrow, but they were “made possible,” according to the voice-over, by Colbert Super PAC SHH Institute. Super PAC SHH (as in “hush”) is Colbert’s 501(c)(4). He has one of those too — an organization that can accept unlimited amounts of money from corporations without disclosing their names and can then give that money to a regular PAC, which would otherwise be required to report corporate donations. ‘What’s the difference between that and money laundering?’” Colbert delightedly told the Times.
“In the case of Colbert’s N.B.A. ads, the secret sugar daddy might, or might not, have been Mark Cuban, the owner of the Dallas Mavericks, who has appeared on the show and whom the ads call a ‘hero.’ We’ll never know, and that of course is the point. Referring to the Supreme Court ruling that money is speech, and therefore corporations can contribute large sums to political campaigns, Colbert said, ‘Citizens United said that transparency would be the disinfectant, but (c)(4)’s are warm, wet, moist incubators. There is no disinfectant.’”
Exactly. Montana knows something about the need for political disinfectant. Stay tuned and, if you want to understand Citizens United in actual practice, read the reasoned, informed, context rich, real world opinions of the Montana justices on both sides of this fundamentally important issue.