"Corporations are people." Two years ago, that's what five justices of the United States Supreme Court gaveled into our Constitution, ruling in the now-infamous Citizens United case that spending money is a form of "freedom of speech" and that when corporations put up money to elect people, they are just exercising their First Amendment rights.
Two months ago, the Montana Supreme Court said wait a minute. It upheld a state law, enacted by Montana voters through the initiative process in 1912, that bars corporations from trying to influence elections. The justices of the Montana Supreme Court argued that the Montana law is different than the federal law that the US Supreme Court threw out, relying on what they described as an especially disturbing history of corporate corruption in Montana government.
When it comes to constitutional law, you can't get closer to the Gunfight at the O.K. Corral than this, as I recently explained.
That's a better analogy than you think.
The campaign finance laws, designed over decades to slow down the accretion of political power by special interests, were like a lazy sheriff in a western gold rush town - barely able to keep up with the legal and illegal maneuverings of outlaw corporateers, while average citizens became increasingly like bystanders in their own democracy.
Then the Supreme Court rode into town and shot the sheriff.
Now we are back to the Wild West, with corporate gunslingers targeting anyone - officials and civilians – who are in the way of their profits and prerogatives. Corporate money, often disguised and hidden behind a fortress of deception, has charged through the Republican presidential primaries, not to mention an untold number of state elections throughout the country. The full fury of this greed-driven onslaught will become apparent in the fall, as Wall Street and the .01 percenters weigh in not just to defeat President Obama (who has not cooperated enough) but any number of other candidates on ballots nationwide, not to mention initiatives put on the ballot by real, live citizens detouring corrupt legislators by taking matters into their own hands.
You can already sense defeat among government officials trying to figure out what defenses, if any, are left against the corporate hordes - the CEOs in their sky-high boardrooms quietly counting dollars and deciding which politicians have earned their financial support (or can be bought); the lobbyists with unlimited expense accounts to wine, dine and drive the quid pro quo; the vast underground of consulting firms and PR flacks that follow corporate orders.
No one could have imagined that Montana, with a population barely larger than a big city, would rise to challenge the United States Supreme Court. The Montana court ruling is an inspiring attempt to evade the deathly embrace of Citizens United and, at the same time, inescapably a courageous challenge to the ideologues now re-writing the nation's laws. It can be found here (PDF).
"Western Tradition Partnership" – the shadowy entity that was caught violating Montana's anti-corrupt practices act – immediately challenged the Montana decision, and last Friday, United States Supreme Court Justice William Kennedy (chief author of the Citizens United decision) issued an order blocking the Montana court ruling from taking effect until the court decides what to do with the appeal.
At least two of the Supreme Court justices who disagreed with their colleagues in Citizens United are hoping the Court will reconsider that ruling. In Friday's order, Justices Ginsberg and Breyer stated:
Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Comm’n, 558 U. S. ___ (2010), make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.” .... [The appeal] will give the Court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.
Observers of the Court think that's a lost cause. Renowned constitutional scholar Erwin Chemerinsky believes that the U.S. Supreme Court will reverse the Montana Supreme Court by the same five to four majority in Citizens United. Still, Citizens United's impact on America's democracy has already been catastrophic, and support for proposals like ours to amend the Constitution has spread across the United States and transcends partisan labels. At the same time, Justices Scalia, Thomas and Alito are under fire for their close ties to conservative pro-business organizations, further undermining confidence in the impartiality of the nation's highest court. I would not underestimate the power of public opinion to affect the outcome of this showdown – if not now, then in the not too distant future of our country.