I am out in Missoula, Mont., for the Big Sky Film Festival. Missoula is a mix of conservative Montana and a bit of the crunchy granola types that you find in many small college towns. The two headers in the Missoulian (the newspaper in the city) are, “Two sex assaults reporter near UM” followed by “High court blocks Montana ruling.” The previous day the U.S. Supreme Court had blocked a ruling made by Montana’s high court that prohibited corporations from contributing to political campaigns.
This was not a recent Montana issue. According to the Missoulian, the people of the state of Montana had voted and passed a 1912 law that prohibited spending by corporations on political campaigns. This was done, said the paper, because of “widespread political corruption in the state by the owners of copper mining companies know as the Copper Kings.” Clearly, back a hundred years ago corporations were trying to influence and “buy” elections, and the good people in Montana were not going to have any of it.
Now, exactly 100 years later, with a Supreme Court that is fast moving to treat corporations as people, there is unlimited money corporations can use to influence elections. From Karl Rove’s superpac to former Speaker Gingrich’s funders, we are seeing an election cycle where billions will be spent and a presidential election that is larger than the GDP of 13 countries. You do not have to be born in 1912 to know there is something wrong with this picture.
The history of Friday’s decision is that a Montana lower court had said the ban on corporate giving was unconstitutional. Then the Montana Supreme Court reinstated the law on a 5-2 vote. The now famous Citizen’s United Case (a 5-4 vote) said that corporations and unions could in fact contribute.
The Montana case will now go to appeal. However, the Supreme Court could let it go and not even hear the case. If the writ of certiorari is granted, then the people of Montana will have their 1912 law upheld. If not, the high court will hear the case.
This is a complete no brainer. If the people of Montana do not want corporations influencing their elections, then they should be allowed to have it their way. The conservatives on the Supreme Court are often states-rights people. Why, when it suits their love of corporate interests do they put a stay on a law that has worked well for the state for 100 years?
According to the Missoulian, two companies challenged the law. Champion Painting Inc. and Montana Shooting Sports Association. I have no idea what Champion Painting wants from the elected politicians unless it has something to do with environmental laws – but given the current debate in Montana about shooting wolves and other species, it is pretty clear what the Montana Shooting Sports Association wants to do. Clearly, the debates about these kinds of issues have been active in the statehouse. Imagine what happens to the debate when unlimited cash can roll into the treasuries of candidates running for office.
Montana is going to be a bell weather for this issue of money in politics. It is not a front-page news state, but it might be the one state that brings the corporate-money-in-politics issue to the forefront. Let’s hope that the Supreme Court rules for the people and not corporations this time around.