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American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock

The Brennan Center and other amici defended Montana’s ban on corporate independent expenditures, arguing that the State presented a factual record of the corrupting influence of corporate spending in Montana elections.

Published: May 4, 2012

Summary of the Case: Adopted in 1912, Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act prohibits corporations from spending general treasury funds to influence the outcome of state elections. In essence, the law is a state-level equivalent of the federal law struck down by Citizens United v. FEC.  After Citizens United, a group of Montana corporations challenged the law.

Defending the law in the Montana Supreme Court, the State took issue with the assumption in Citizens United that independent expenditures, unlike contributions to candidates, cannot corrupt elected officials. Montana argued that the Supreme Court struck down the federal ban on corporate independent expenditures because of a lack of a factual record that independent spending leads to corruption at the federal level. But by detailing Montana’s “unique history of corporate political corruption” caused by nineteenth century mining interests, the state distinguished its law from the federal equivalent and defended its constitutionality. By a 5–2 vote, the Montana Supreme Court agreed with the State’s argument, noting that Montana voters adopted the Corrupt Practices Act because of the corrupting influence of corporate spending, and concluding that the threat of corruption remains salient:

Issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government. Clearly Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.

The challengers appealed the decision to the U.S. Supreme Court, which granted a stay of the Montana court’s decision and invited briefing on whether or not the Supreme Court should hear the case.

In conjunction with the stay order, Justices Ginsberg and Breyer issued an unusual statement urging the Court to review the Montana case, and to reexamine Citizens United “in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance.”  The Brennan Center urged the Court to let the Montana Supreme Court’s decision stand, and to use the case as “an opportunity to reconsider the real-world consequences of Citizens United, and the devastating effect it has had on our democracy.”

Summary of Brennan Center’s Amicus Argument: The Brennan Center joined constitutional and election law professors in an amici curiae brief urging the Supreme Court to deny certiorari and let Montana’s Corrupt Practices Act stand. The brief argues that if the Supreme Court agrees to hear the case, however, it should grant plenary review and address its prior ruling in Citizens United.  The brief urges the Court to clarify that lower courts in other cases have erred in interpreting Citizens United to mean that courts should not examine a factual record in determining whether or not independent expenditures create the reality or appearance of corruption. The Brennan Center and other amici argue that Montana, unlike the respondents in Citizens United, presented a strong factual record that Montana citizens adopted the Corrupt Practices Act in order to combat corporate corruption in Montana state government at the beginning of the twentieth century. Further, amici demonstrate that Super PAC and other outside spending since Citizens United provides a strong basis to conclude that elimination of the Corrupt Practices Act would allow corruption to flourish in Montana state politics. The brief explains that the extension of Citizens United beyond its original purpose has allowed wealthy and powerful interests to circumvent longstanding campaign finance regulations:

The Court has never questioned the compelling interest in fighting perceived and actual corruption through limits on direct contributions to candidates. Campaign contribution limits—including a longstanding ban on corporate contributions—are thus an established aspect of federal campaign finance regulation. By giving donors an outlet to contribute unlimited sums in support of their favored candidate, super PACs have rendered these restrictions meaningless.

The amici urge the court to clarify that a proper reading of Citizens United requires courts to examine the factual record before invalidating state regulation of independent expenditures, which Montana clearly and persuasively presented in this case.

The Montana Supreme Court’s decision can be found here.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s order granting a stay can be found here.

The amicus brief of the Brennan Center and consitutional and election law professors can be found here.

Related Court Documents

US Supreme Court Documents

Montana Supreme Court Documents