On Friday, Jan. 20, a day before the second anniversary of the Supreme Court decision Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, drumming and chanting protestors trudged through snow-socked downtown Missoula and assembled in front of the federal courthouse. City Councilman Jason Wiener stood on a makeshift wooden platform on the sidewalk and roused the crowd with the words of Theodore Roosevelt, first spoken more than a century before, about fighting corporate domination.
"'In our day'—then as in now—'it appears as the struggle of freemen to gain and hold the right of self-government," Wiener boomed through a megaphone, "as against the special interests, who twist the methods of free government into machinery for defeating the popular will.'"
Now Missoula and Montana are moving to the center of that struggle.
The protestors came to decry the Supreme Court's 5-4 Citizens United ruling, which allows for unlimited campaign spending by corporations. They numbered well over 100, topping the crowds reported in much larger cities on a day when dozens of courthouses around the country were "occupied." The protests were coordinated by Move to Amend, an organization seeking to change the U.S. Constitution to overrule Citizens United.
Missoula's protestors also came to praise the Montana Supreme Court, which on Dec. 30 became the first to defy Citizens United. The court found that Citizens United did not negate Montana's Corrupt Practices Act, a citizens' initiative passed in 1912 that stopped powerful and corrupt mining companies from spending freely to influence elections. "Clearly the impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens," Montana's justices wrote. The plaintiff, Western Tradition Partnership, a conservative advocacy group dedicated to fighting "environmental extremism," has appealed the ruling, setting up a showdown before the U.S. Supreme Court.
Among those who followed Wiener onto the soapbox were Councilwoman Cynthia Wolken, who drafted the "anti-corporate personhood" resolution that 75 percent of Missoula voters supported in last November's election; Councilman Dave Strohmaier, a Democratic candidate for Montana's U.S. House seat; University of Montana political science professor Paul Haber; and Missoula Rep. Dick Barrett.
"Montana, get ready," Barrett said. "We haven't seen nothing yet. With the Citizens United decision we can expect money to pour into independent expenditure campaigns, and since we are a small state with an election coming up on which the makeup of the U.S. Senate heavily depends, that corporate money is going to pour into Montana. For our statewide and legislative elections...we are protected by Montana law and the Montana Supreme Court decision upholding our prohibition on corporate political spending. But in the races for the U.S. Senate and the House, our democracy is up for sale—and the bidding is going to be intense."
The protestors see themselves at the vanguard of a populist movement akin to others in American history that, as Haber told the crowd, "corrected the relationship between capitalism and democracy."
They face long odds. Amending the constitution requires a two-thirds vote in both the U.S. House and Senate and ratification by three-fourths of, or 38, state legislatures. And the movement will have to overcome opposition from groups who supported the Citizens United decision, such as the libertarian Institute for Justice. IJ attorney Steve Simpson told National Public Radio last week that it's "a little bit ironic" that people are "banding together in groups and exercising their right to free speech, to protest a court decision that held that people should be able to band together in groups and exercise their right to free speech."
But on Friday, the Missoula protestors seemed unfazed. They were energized by lofty oratory and the state's rebuttal of the U.S. Supreme Court, with some chanting "It's good to be a Montanan."
Speaking to the crowd, Wolken shot down cynics who have said the city's resolution is meaningless. "It matters," she said. "It matters to us. It mattered, I think, to the Montana Supreme Court, and it's going to matter to the legislature. We're going to make it matter to the Montana Legislature. We're going to get a resolution passed...that says we need a constitutional amendment."
At the end of the 45-minute rally, Wiener returned to the stand to again quote Roosevelt's "New Nationalism" speech. "'The citizens of the United States must effectively control the mighty commercial forces which they have called into being,'" Weiner intoned. "'There can be no effective control of corporations while their political activity remains. To put an end to it will be neither a short nor an easy task'—he said in 1910—'but it can be done.' And we're going to do it."
Last week, Western Tradition Partnership asked the Montana Supreme Court not to enforce the state's ban on independent political expenditures until the U.S. Supreme Court weighs in. On Monday, Jan. 24, Attorney General Steve Bullock urged the Montana court to keep the ban in place.
On Jan. 25, Montana Sens. Max Baucus and Jon Tester said they support reversing Citizens United.