Washington – In a brief unsigned decision, the Supreme Court on Monday declined to have another look at its blockbuster 2010 campaign finance decision, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. In a 5-to-4 vote, the majority summarily reversed a decision of the Montana Supreme Court that had refused to follow the Citizens United decision.
“The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the opinion said. “There can be no serious doubt that it does. Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.”
The four members of the court’s liberal wing dissented in an opinion by Justice Stephen G. Breyer, who said that Citizens United itself had been a mistake.
“Even if I were to accept Citizens United,” Justice Breyer contined, “this court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana. Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the state had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations.”
“Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so,” Justice Breyer added.
The Montana Supreme Court had ruled that the state’s distinctive history and characteristics warranted a departure from the principles announced in Citizens United.
In the Citizens United case, Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, writing for the five justices in the majority, wrote that the First Amendment prohibits limits on independent political spending by corporations and unions. Justice Kennedy reasoned that such expenditures “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
Citizens United is the Supreme Court’s most controversial decision since Bush v. Gore in 2000. It has been criticized for contributing to a political landscape awash in money, and its critics welcomed the possibility that the justices might revisit the decision. But experts in election law said there was little reason to think any of the justices in the majority had changed their minds.
Justice Breyer agreed, saying that he “did not see a significant possibility of reconsideration.” He said he would have denied the appeal of the corporations involved in the Montana case, and let the state Supreme Court’s decision stand.
That court, by a 5-to-2 vote, had upheld a 1912 state law limiting political activity by corporations.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath of the State Supreme Court, writing for the majority, said Montana’s experience of having its political system corrupted by corporate interests early in the 20th century justified the ruling.
“At that time,” Chief Justice McGrath wrote, “the state of Montana and its government were operating under a mere shell of legal authority, and the real social and political power was wielded by powerful corporate managers to further their own business interests. The voters had more than enough of the corrupt practices and heavy-handed influence asserted by the special interests controlling Montana’s political institutions.”
“Citizens United,” he wrote, “does not compel a conclusion that Montana’s law prohibiting independent political expenditures by a corporation related to a candidate is unconstitutional.”
Two dissenting justices on the state Supreme Court wrote that they would have liked to vote with their colleagues but were bound to apply Citizens United to strike down the state law. “I cannot agree,” one of them, Justice James C. Nelson, wrote, “that this ‘Montana is unique’ rationale is consistent with Citizens United. And I seriously doubt this rationale is going to prevail in the Supreme Court when this case is appealed, as it almost certainly will be.”
In February, two of the dissenters in Citizens United – Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, joined by Justice Breyer — issued a statement explaining that “lower courts are bound to follow this court’s decisions until they are withdrawn or modified.”
They added, though, that the United States Supreme Court should now use the Montana case to consider the aftermath of Citizens United. The Montana case, they wrote, was “an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway.”
The challengers in the new case, American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock, No. 11-1179, are three corporations: American Tradition Partnership, which says it is “a nonprofit ideological corporation”; Montana Shooting Sports Association, a gun rights group and Champion Painting, a family-owned painting and drywall business. They had urged the court to reverse the lower court’s decision summarily, which is to say without full briefing and oral arguments.
Montana’s attorney general, Steve Bullock, supported by 22 states, argued that the case warranted more considered treatment in light of the characteristics of state and local elections.
They urged the court, in the words of Barbara D. Underwood, New York’s solicitor general, to give the states “the opportunity to be fully heard on the question of how to reconcile the free speech rights recognized in Citizens United with the special problems attendant on protecting the democratic character of state and local elections and institutions.”