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Tuesday, Jun 26, 2012, 3:34 pm

Supreme Court Reaffirms Corporate Personhood, Rejects State Campaign Spending Limits

By Isaac Dalke

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Between the analysis of yesterday’s immigration ruling and the anticipation of Thursday’s healthcare ruling, all eyes have have been transfixed on the U.S. Supreme Court this week. Some have even gone as far as to deconstruct Justice Ginsberg's sense of humor to divine future rulings.

Amidst this hullabaloo, you may have missed that the court also handed down a major decision on campaign finance. In special occasions, when the court feels as though the outcome of a case is clearly decided, it will forgo a full proceeding and issue a statement. Such was the case with American Tradition Partnership v  Bullock. In a one-page statement, the court overturned a Montana state campaign finance law that limited outside corporate contributions to local and state elections. The unsigned ruling reads, “Montana’s arguments …  either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.”

Many hoped that the fallout from 2010's Citizen's United ruling would provide sufficient reason for the court to revisit the ruling in that case. However, the brief dismissal of American Tradition Partnership v. Bullock appears to preclude the possibility of the Supreme Court revisiting campaign finance in the near future, and means that the Citizens United ruling definitively applies to all government elections in the U.S. Unlimited corporate spending in campaigns is now, without qualification, allowed in everything from presidential campaigns to school board elections.

Montana's Corrupt Practices Act, which included the expenditure ban overturned yesterday, grew out of a specific set of real concerns in Montana a hundred years ago. The act was the result of a 1912 citizen initiative that followed a series of scandals involving the state's largest copper barons, who used their money to elect state senators and judges sympathetic to their industry. The extent and audacity of the corruption brought the state national shame and scandal. Within Teddy Roosevelt's administration, the widespread corruption came to be known simply as the 'Montana Situation.'

In yesterday's ruling, four justices dissented. In the dissenting opinion, Justice Breyer wrote, “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.”

Justice Kennedy, the lone swing vote on the court who cast the decisive vote in Citizens United, rehashed his stance in siding with the majority. Harvard Law Professor Noah Feldman writes, "Had the court given the Montana case full consideration, it might have found some way to distance itself from the consequences of Citizens United. That it did not do so suggests Kennedy is perfectly comfortable with his role as the decisive conservative vote in that momentous decision."

One option is to give it time—as the bench slowly changes composition in the future, new justices may be persuaded to revisit campaign finance. Currently, there are four justices over the age of 70: Ginsburg, Scalia, Kennedy and Breyer. Kennedy and Scalia, 76 and 75 respectively, may not be willing to revisit the case, but their successors might.

Calls continue or a 28th Ammendment that would reverse Citizens United by abolishing corporate personhood. A resolution in support of such an amendment was introduced to the Senate in 2011, and currently has 22 cosponsers.  Montana voters themselves will see a ballot initiative this November that would call on the state's elected officials to support such an amendment.

A third, but highly unlikely option, is for polititians to renounce outside corporate campaign financing and the influence of Super PACs. Elizabeth Warren and Scott Brown struck such an agreement in their race for one of Massachussett's Senate seats. Wouldn't it be nice to think that politicians could live above the influence of money?

Isaac Dalke is a summer 2012 In These Times editorial intern.

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