State Wants Corporate Spending Ban in Place Before Court Review

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — The attorney general asked the Montana Supreme Court on Monday to keep in place the state’s century-old ban on direct spending by corporations on political candidates or committees until the U.S. Supreme Court reviews the law.

Last month, the Montana Supreme Court restored the state’s ban by deciding it does not run afoul of the U.S. Constitution, as a lower state court had initially ruled.

A politically involved corporation had challenged the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, which passed as a ballot initiative. It argued the law unconstitutionally blocks political speech by corporations.

Western Tradition Partnership, which also goes by American Tradition Partnership, has asked the Montana high court to stay its decision restoring the ban until it is reviewed by the U.S. Supreme Court. The conservative group argues the Montana Supreme Court failed to recognize the supremacy of the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the Citizens United case that granted political speech rights to corporations.

But the Montana Supreme Court decided last month that Montana’s law does not unconstitutionally restrict speech. It pointed out there are plenty of ways for corporations to engage in politics without funneling anonymous money into the process.

The attorney general argued in a Monday filing that a move by the court to stay its earlier decision would disrupt Montana campaign finance laws in the midst of 2012 election campaigns, “unleashing the very evils this Court held Montanans have a compelling interest in preventing.”

“Any injunction would throw the primary campaign, at least, into chaos as the hundreds of Montana candidates and political committees (including corporations) that play by the existing rules, and voters themselves, suddenly face an onslaught of anonymous, unaccountable, and corrupting attacks by foreign corporations,” the attorney general’s office argued.

Western Tradition Partnership has gained notoriety in Montana by tangling with state campaign finance officials, and riling Democrats and even some Republicans with hard-hitting attack mailers. It has done so without filing disclosures on spending or donors, previously arguing it does not need to.

It has a separate state lawsuit challenging the right of the state to penalize it, and a federal lawsuit that challenges many other aspects of state campaign finance regulations and disclosure requirements.