“I never bought a man who wasn’t for sale,” William A. Clark reportedly said. He was one of Montana’s “Copper Kings,” a man who used his vast wealth to manipulate the state government and literally buy votes to make himself a U.S. senator. That was more than 100 years ago, and the blatant corruption of Clark and the other Copper Kings created a furor that led to the passage, by citizen initiative, of Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act in 1912. The century of transparent campaign-finance restrictions that followed, preventing corporate money from influencing elections, came to an end this week, as the U.S. Supreme Court summarily reversed the Montana law. Five justices of the U.S Supreme Court reiterated: Their controversial Citizens United ruling remains the law of the land. Clark’s corruption contributed to the passage of the 17th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution. Now, close to 100 years later, it may take a popular movement to amend the Constitution again, this time to overturn Citizens United and confirm, finally and legally, that corporations are not people.
Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission is the case in which the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that corporations can contribute unlimited amounts of funds toward what are deemed “independent expenditures” in our elections. Thus, corporations, or shadowy “super PACS” that they choose to fund, can spend as much as they care to on negative campaign ads, just as long as they don’t coordinate with a candidate’s campaign committee. That 2010 ruling, approved by a narrow 5-4 majority of the court, has profoundly altered the electoral landscape—not only for the presidential election, but also for thousands of races around the country. According to a summary of the ruling’s impact, prepared by the National Conference of State Legislatures, “While the ruling does not directly affect state laws, there are 24 states that currently prohibit or restrict corporate and/or union spending on candidate elections.”
Montana, with its long history of banning corporate contributions, was alone among the states to defy those five U.S. Supreme Court justices. Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia filed a brief in support of Montana, noting that state elections are different. Their supporting brief read, “States—particularly resource-rich States with small populations, like Montana—face the risk that nonresident corporations with discrete and well-defined interests will dominate campaign spending in state and local election contests.”
Montana is not known for bipartisanship these days. Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer says his veto pen has run out of ink from the number of “crazy” Republican bills that he has had to veto since taking office. Lacking ink, he now takes bills from the Republican-controlled legislature onto the Capitol steps and emblazons them with a red-hot branding iron that says “Veto.” So it was significant that, after the Supreme Court decision this week, Schweitzer and his lieutenant governor, John Bohlinger, a Republican, stood together before the Capitol.
Bohlinger said, “Now, Republicans and Democrats don’t always agree on policy matters, but there’s one thing we do agree on, and that is, corporate money should not influence the outcome of an election.” To which Schweitzer added: “Here in Montana, we have a proud, 100-year history of keeping corporate money out of our elections. Corporations aren’t people, and they should not control our government. Montana stood up for democracy, here at home and on behalf of America, by fighting to keep our ban on corporate campaign spending. The United States Supreme Court blocked our state law, because they said corporations are people. I’ll believe that when Texas executes one."
John Bonifaz is co-founder and director of Free Speech for People, one of a coalition of groups organizing for a constitutional amendment that specifies that “People, person, or persons as used in this Constitution does not include corporations, limited liability companies or other corporate entities.” He told me: “We’ve seen a growing mobilization across the country of people calling for an amendment to reclaim our democracy. Four states are now on record—Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Mexico—calling for an amendment. Other states are likely to join that fight soon. Montana [has a] statewide ballot in November for an amendment. Hundreds of municipalities across the country have called for an amendment. Over a thousand business leaders have joined that call. And now there are some dozen amendment bills pending in the United States Congress calling for an amendment, with hearings to be held before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this July.”
Perhaps the only silver lining in the Supreme Court’s decision to send Montana back to the age of the Copper Kings is that a mass movement is building to assert the rights of people over the power of money in politics.
Denis Moynihan contributed research to this column.