Supreme Court Considering Case That Defies Citizens United Ruling

U.S. Supreme Court looking at Montana ruling that banned outside spending by corporations.


The U.S. Supreme Court started reflecting Friday on its controversial Citizens United campaign finance ruling for the first time since the decision changed American politics in 2010.

The opportunity comes after a Montana case in which that state's highest court ruled to ignore the Citizen United ban on limits to corporate political spending.

In Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, the Court ruled that limits on outside spending spending by corporations and labor unions were unconstitutional. That and subsequent rulings gave rise to Super PACs and the record amount of outside money that has poured into elections ever since.

The decision voided state laws across the country that limited corporate money in elections, but late last year, the Montana Supreme Court ruled the state would keep their law in place. Chief Justice Mike McGrath wrote that Montana's unique circumstances, namely its history of political corruption by wealthy "copper kings" and mining interests, made the ban on corporate money necessary.

[Read: Progressives Push to Overturn Citizens United]

Because that ruling flies directly in the face of Citizens United, legal experts say the only uncertainty around Friday's conference is how—not if—the justices will overturn the Montana decision.

Outside the court, the Montana decision has very attracted significant interest. More than fifteen amicus briefs, comments or advisory papers on the case have been submitted. Filers include former Federal Election Commission officials, the actual Citizens United group, Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, and a bipartisan duo from the Senate, Tennessee Sen. Sheldon Whitehouse and Arizona Sen. John McCain.

McCain and Whitehouse's brief argues that the Citizens United ruling created a "strong potential for corruption and perception thereof." They argue that "as active, democratically elected legislators, they have a direct understanding of the effects of unlimited independent election expenditures on our legislative system and our democracy."

The other line of argument focuses on the Montana Supreme Court's majority opinion that the state's political landscape makes the ban on corporate money necessary. That opinion said that the state's large size, small population, and dependence on natural resources made it especially vulnerable to corporate political influence.

"The Montana Supreme Court said 'Sure, this law burdens some speech, but there is a really good government interest in doing this,'" says Paul Ryan, senior council at the Campaign Legal Center.

Montana residents have benefitted from the bill, says C.B. Pearson, who has led several ballot initiatives on campaign finance issues in the state.

"Our general conversation about elections in our state is very healthy. We know who our candidates are," Pearson says. "People are aware of things that they might not be if there was all this corporate money."

[Referendum: Are Super PACs Ruining Politics?]

But both supporters and opponents of Citizen United agree the Supreme Court is not likely to completely reconsider the case, regardless of Montana's special circumstances.

"They're not going to simply revisit Citizen United two years after it was handed down with the same majority in place," says Allen Dickerson, legal director at the Center for Competitive Politics. "Two of most liberal justices on the Supreme Court agree that Montana was over the line here."

Even if the court did schedule for the case to be debated in full this fall, it's not likely Citizen United, or even campaign finance, would feature prominently, Dickerson says.

"If it gets heard in the fall, it will be less about Citizens United and more about whether a state can think it's special, or whether state judges can impose their own reading of a U.S. Supreme Court ruling."

Seth Cline is a reporter with U.S. News and World Report. You can contact him at or follow him on Twitter.

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