High Court Sets Oral Arguments in Campaign Lawsuit

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A conservative group fighting campaign finance rules in Montana says in a recent filing that it agrees disclosure laws can apply to corporate speech, but Western Tradition Partnership argues it isn’t subject to current disclosure laws because its attack mailers fall outside the definition of “electioneering.”

The Montana Supreme Court has set oral arguments for September in the state’s challenge to a district court decision that tossed out the outright ban on corporate political spending.

Western Tradition Partnership first filed the lawsuit last year piggybacking on the high-profile Citizen’s United case decided by the U.S. Supreme Court. The group aims to undo Montana’s century-old restriction on corporate political spending.

Western Tradition is separately fighting a decision that it failed to report campaign expenditures. The group argues its activities are not intended to influence elections.

In a brief filed earlier this month with the Supreme Court on the main case fighting the ban corporate campaign spending, WTP made it clear it believes campaign finance regulation is OK.

“If the State is truly concerned with accountability, the state has other means at its disposal, such as disclosure laws, to make sure that people know who is speaking,” Western Tradition argued in the brief. “It is inappropriate, and indeed, unconstitutional, to completely outlaw corporate political speech.”

WTP spokesman Donny Ferguson said Wednesday that the statement does not undermine the group’s argument in the other case where it challenge sanctions levied by the commissioner of political practices for failing to disclose political committee spending. Ferguson said the group does not believe its campaign mailers are intended to influence elections.

The mailers have targeted some Republicans in primary legislative elections that conservatives feel are not conservative enough. But most of the attack pieces have been leveled against Democrats in general elections. In both cases, the subjects of the attacks have argued the mailers clearly are meant to move voter support.

But Ferguson said the mailers, after making a statement on the candidate’s position, ask voters to contact the candidate in order to get the candidate to change his or her position on the issue.

“We do no electioneering. We are not a political committee,” he said. “We do not electioneer or tell people who to vote for, or anything like it.”

The Montana Supreme Court will make a decision on whether to reinstate the bulk of the citizen-approved 1912 Corrupt Practices Act that bans corporate political spending.

Attorney General Steve Bullock is appealing the case, and argues that the state’s ban is unique and should stand despite the U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year, because of the state’s initiative approved by voters long ago.

In its reply brief filed earlier this month, Western Tradition argued the state’s argument does not have merit.

“It has distorted, twisted, misconstrued, misapplied, and ignored the law in order to silence corporations during the candidate election process,” wrote WTP attorney Margo Barg. “It is now up to this Court to enforce the First Amendment and the Montana Constitution by giving to corporations what has so long been denied — the right to use their general treasury funds to join the debate and add their ideas and opinions to the public discourse.”

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