Montana judge tosses out corporate campaign finance law

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- A state judge ruled Monday that Montana's century-old ban on corporate political spending is unconstitutional, paving the way for activist groups organized as corporations to spend as much as they want this election season.

The Montana attorney general promised a quick appeal to the Montana Supreme Court.

District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena tossed out the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act -- a throwback to a time when the public rebelled with a voter-backed initiative against the "Copper Kings" and their hold on state politics. That law prohibited corporations from making independent political expenditures.

The state law came under fire after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, in the Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission case, threw out parts of an old federal law prohibiting corporations and unions from paying to air ads for or against political candidates.

Attorney General Steve Bullock had argued that the state's ban is unique and should stand despite the Supreme Court decision.

"This isn't just about our history: Two former secretaries of state and other experts in the field testified that an influx of corporate spending will corrupt the political process and drown out the voices of everyday Montanans," Bullock said in a release. "The facts in this case are markedly different from those considered by the U.S. Supreme Court in Citizens United."

Sherlock noted that similar bans in Wisconsin and Minnesota have already been declared unconstitutional.

The judge wrote that the Montana law, "insofar as it prevents corporations from making independent expenditures to support or oppose political candidates or political parties, is declared unconstitutional."

Restrictions on corporate contributions to political candidates are not affected by the decision.

The judge did not award attorney fees to the politically involved corporations that successfully brought the case, because that is only granted in cases where the victory helps a large number of "people." Opponents of corporate political speech often point out the corporations are not people worthy of constitutional free speech protection.

"While the plaintiff corporations will certainly benefit from this ruling there is no reasonable way of knowing 'the number of people' standing to benefit from this decision," Sherlock wrote.

The secretive Western Tradition Partnership, once organized in Montana before operations were largely shifted to Colorado, led the case. An executive director based in northern Virginia wouldn't say how the group plans to get involved in elections this year.

"The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from the government, not to shield politicians from criticism," said the director, Donald Ferguson. "The court has restored fairness and balance to elections by allowing employers to speak freely about the radical environmentalist candidates and issues that threaten your right to earn a living."

Bozeman attorney Margot Barg argued in court on behalf of the group, a gun rights organization and a local painting company that corporations should be allowed to make the same sort of free political speech individuals are allowed.

"It's a win not only for the groups speaking, but all Montanans who benefit from a robust political dialogue so they can make fully informed decisions," she said in a statement.

Western Tradition Partnership got involved in some nasty Republican legislative primaries earlier this year, backing the most favored conservatives with mixed results. They were accused by one victorious Republican, Sen. John Esp, of being "a bunch of unprincipled cowards" who mailed misleading and exaggerated attack pieces.

In the future, Montana campaign finance law would not place any restrictions on the amount of money the corporations, either organized for politics or profit, spend advocating for or against candidates if Sherlock's ruling stands.

The Montana Democratic Party said elections could forever be changed.

"We believe that people, not corporations, should decide the elections," said party spokesman Martin Kidston. "This effectively allows corporations and activist groups to buy the election by presenting a lopsided argument to the public to suit their own interest."

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