On June 25, Montana's Corrupt Practices Act died in Washington D.C. The 100-year-old statute succumbed after a long battle with a conservative anti-environmentalist group, American Tradition Partnership.
"The court has certainly slammed the door on the idea that states somehow or another are exempt from the First Amendment requirement," says James Bopp Jr., who represented ATP in court.
The United States Supreme Court found in a 5-4 decision that Montana's campaign finance law, which banned direct corporate spending on political races, violated free speech protections. "Political speech does not lose First Amendment protection simply because its source is a corporation," the Court said in its decision this week, citing a 2010 precedent that it set in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission.
Montana's Corrupt Practices Act was born in 1912. Citizens created it to reel in the power of the Copper Kings, who at the turn of the 20th century used deep pockets to influence electoral politics. Supporters say the law evened out a dangerously tipped playing field. "As a result of these laws, citizens have been able to participate meaningfully in campaigns," says Dennis Swibold, University of Montana journalism professor and author of Copper Chorus: Mining, Politics and the Montana Press, 1889-1959.
Entities in and outside of Montana, including unions, corporations and Super PACs funded by anonymous donors, can now spend as much as they want to influence elections. Swibold says the problem now is that industry-friendly candidates will have even more leverage over average citizens who want to participate in local government. "It could just swamp people, and it will."
Those who laud the Supreme Court's decision say it's a victory for the little guy. Bopp says the only way for working people to broadcast their voices is to pool funds. "People of average means must pool their resources. It's the only way the little guy can participate."
It looks like citizens will have a chance to weigh in on the discussion this November. A grassroots group called "Stand with Montanans" announced last week that it had gathered enough signatures to place voter initiative I-166 on the November election ballot. If voters support the initiative, the state would craft a non-binding resolution that tells the United States Congress to overturn the Supreme Court's decisions on campaign finance with a constitutional amendment.