Supreme Court ends Montana ban on corporate political spending

WASHINGTON — The Supreme Court’s affirmation Monday that corporations may engage in direct political activity squelched campaign finance reform advocates’ long-shot hope of rolling back Citizens United, the 2010 decision that ushered in a new era of unbridled campaign spending.

In a 5-4 decision, the court summarily overturned a century-old Montana state law that banned corporate political expenditures, saying it conflicted with the 1st Amendment speech rights of corporations affirmed in the Citizens United case.

The ruling, while expected, served to underline the bleak landscape facing proponents of campaign finance regulations just a decade after the landmark McCain-Feingold Act restricted large, unregulated donations in federal elections.

Now, not only can corporations spend unlimited amounts of money on politics, but the 2012 campaign has been marked by the explosive growth of “super PACs” — independent political committees created by a lower-court decision that followed Citizens United and fueled by wealthy individuals and private companies.

With Monday’s action, the Supreme Court made it clear that any state laws seeking to ban corporate political expenditures are unconstitutional.

Such spending is “threatening the health of our democracy,” said White House spokesman Eric Schultz, adding that the court missed an opportunity to correct the “mistake” it made in Citizens United.

The silver lining, reform advocates hope, is that the return of big money into the system will trigger a public backlash.

“By the time this election is over, the country is going to look at the campaign finance system we have and think it is corrupt and insane,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “And this is going to create major new opportunities for reform. When the country demands change, elected officials tend to pay attention.”

But the court’s ruling in the Montana case makes it that much harder to curtail Citizens United, in part because it affirmed the idea that independent expenditures are not corrupting. Without a change in the makeup of the court, overturning the decision would require a constitutional amendment.

In the meantime, campaign finance reformers find themselves fending off challenges to remaining laws, particularly disclosure rules now being assailed by conservatives.

“There’s not much more that campaign finance reformers can do other than to try to make disclosure as firm as possible, maintain reasonable campaign contribution limits and do whatever we can do keep money out of judicial elections,” said Jamie Raskin, a law professor at American University and Democratic state senator from Maryland who co-sponsored a state disclosure law after Citizens United.

But James Bopp Jr., a prominent conservative lawyer who has led the charge against campaign finance restrictions — including the Montana law — said critics of Citizens United were on a “quixotic path.”

“This is just grasping at straws, flailing about like a bunch of fools. There’s nothing effective that can be done to limit independent spending,” he said. “The Supreme Court made that perfectly clear today. They shut the door on that.”

The Montana case hinged on a law dating to 1912 that attempted to curb the immense influence copper mining companies then exerted in state politics. (One so-called Copper King, William Andrews Clark, secured a U.S. Senate seat after bribing state lawmakers in 1899.)

In 2010, a trio of corporations led by American Tradition Partnership, a conservative advocacy group backed by fossil fuel interests, challenged the Montana law, arguing it was invalidated by Citizens United. The state Supreme Court disagreed, ruling the century-old ban was justified because of the “distinct history of corruption, and nature of political discourse, in Montana.”

Bopp, the lawyer for the corporations, appealed the decision to theU.S. Supreme Court, which ruled Monday that “there can be no serious doubt” that its ruling in Citizens United applied to Montana.

Advocates for stricter campaign finance regulations said they would continue their fight by pushing for greater disclosure of political spending, such as through the Disclose Act, which would require, among other measures, that politically active groups identify their top donors in ads.

“I’m confident we will prevail on the issue of disclosure and transparency at the end of the day, but the question is when,” said Rep. Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.), one of the bill’s authors. “The forces that want to hide this money are digging in. It will be a pitched battle.”

Neela Banerjee in the Washington bureau contributed to this report.