Montana high court upholds ban on corporate cash in elections

citizens united sign520x300

Progressives in the "Big Sky State" are praising the Montana Supreme Court for rejecting the U.S. Supreme Court's "corporate personhood" decision by upholding Montana's 1912 law banning corporate cash in state elections.

The ruling by Montana's highest court is the biggest challenge yet to the U.S. Supreme Court's infamous "Citizens United" ruling that corporations are people with the same free speech rights as human beings.  

That 5-4 Supreme Court decision opened the floodgates for billionaires like the Koch brothers to pour anonymous money into campaign coffers to buy elections and ramrod their union-busting agenda, preserving tax cuts for the rich and terminating consumer, health and safety, and environmental protections.

In its 5-2 ruling, the Montana high court declared that curbing corporate power to buy elections with unlimited cash "is still a vital interest to the people of Montana."

Montana's attorney general, Steve Bullock, who argued in defense of the Montana law, hailed the ruling. "Montana has a long history of corporate influence in elections and ultimately the citizens are saying no, that's not how we want to run our elections," Bullock told the Los Angeles Times. He was referring to Anaconda Copper's stranglehold on Montana politics.

Al Ekblad, executive secretary of the Montana AFL-CIO, told the Peoples World, "We learned a long time ago in Montana that only by ending the corruption and the vast influx of corporate money in politics could we protect the integrity of the process."

Justice does not exist without democracy, he added "and true democracy does not exist where corporate interests are allowed to masquerade in the electoral process as if they were average citizens."

Ekblad, a former organizer for Operating Engineers Local 400, added, "Corporate America wants to buy political offices in Montana and we're not going to accept that."

Cynthia Wolken, a member of the Missoula, Mont., City Council, hailed the Montana high court ruling as an important symbolic victory. The conservative Montana outfit that sued asking the Montana court to overturn the state law has already announced it will appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court and the Supreme Court has announced it will hear the appeal. "To be honest, I don't have much faith that the U.S. Supreme Court is going to reverse itself," Wolken told the People's World in a phone interview.

Yet the struggle in Montana, she said, is "energizing" the movement to reverse the Supreme Court's "corporate personhood" decision. "State legislatures and courts all across the country are considering resolutions calling for reversal of Citizens United," she said.

Wolken herself sponsored a voter referendum on the ballot last November to instruct the Missoula City Council to support a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. "It was approved by 75 percent of the voters," she said. "One of the greatest results is that citizens became educated and learned about the effects of Citizens United on our democracy. It has spurred interest and support for similar resolutions all across the state urging support for a constitutional amendment to overturn that ruling." Voters in that election also inflicted a crushing statewide defeat of tea party Republicans.

Attorney General Bullock, a Democrat, is a candidate for governor of Montana in next November's elections and ironically has raised more than twice as much as his Republican rival, none of it corporate cash..

Frank Kromkowski, coordinator of Montana Progressive Democrats, also praised the Montana Supreme Court ruling.  "Progressive Democrats in Montana are very happy that the Montana Supreme Court, in response to Attorney General Steve Bullock, is challenging the Citizens United decision. There is a wave of actions in cities and towns across the state asking city councils to take a stand."

Kromkowski, former chair of the Jobs with Justice Workers' Rights Board in Montana, is now active with the Occupy Wall Street movement that has erupted in 12 towns and cities across Montana. He cited an effort in Butte asking the City-County council "to stand up against the abuses of Wall Street and declare that corporations are not people." The Occupy movement in Montana is tapping into a "long tradition of opposition to exploitation by corporations," he said, ranging from W. R. Grace's hideous mines in Libby where hundreds are dying of asbestos-caused mesothelioma, to Anaconda Copper's virtual ownership of Butte and nearby Anaconda.

The movement is growing across the nation, he said. "The Los Angeles City Council passed a similar resolution calling for reversal of Citizens United ... This is a tremendously important struggle against the corporate corruption that continues to threaten our political process. Wall Street and corporate power has no interest in preserving political democracy or protecting workers' rights and the environment."

Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW