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Supreme Court rebuffs Montana on corporate election spending

Justices block a decision by the state's high court to enforce a 100-year-old ban on such money in campaigns.

February 17, 2012|By David G. Savage, Washington Bureau

Reporting from Washington — The Supreme Court served notice Friday that it would not let states or state judges casually defy its much-disputed ruling in the Citizens United case that gave corporations a right to spend freely on election campaigns.

The justices put on hold enforcement of a Montana election law. But the case could force the high court to reconsider the corporate spending issue if its liberal justices insist on doing so.

On Dec. 30, Montana's high court said it was refusing to follow Citizens United as a binding precedent. Instead, the state justices affirmed Montana's 100-year-old anti-corruption law that forbids corporations from giving to candidates or spending to elect them. Adopted by its voters, it arose during the era of the "Copper Kings" who, as Mark Twain once put it, "bought legislatures and judges as other men buy food and raiment."

But the 5-4 majority in the Citizens United case said the 1st Amendment protects independent political spending by corporations and unions. One Montana justice described as "utter nonsense" the Supreme Court's view that lavish spending by corporations did not corrupt candidates or the election process.

Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer, staunch dissenters two years ago, said the court should reconsider the Citizens United decision "in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance."

"Montana's experience, and experience elsewhere since [the decision] make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations 'do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption'" Ginsburg wrote.

It is not clear what will happen next. The four liberal justices could vote as a bloc and call for the court to hear arguments later this year on Montana's defiance of the Citizens United decision. However, the five conservative justices could agree on a summary ruling to overturn the Montana state court decision.

david.savage@latimes.com

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