The Supreme Court today released its penultimate batch of orders and opinions for the term; among them was a ruling overturning Montana’s ban on corporate political contributions.
The matter is of some local interest because of the pending effort to ban corporate contributions to D.C. political campaigns via a ballot initiative. Montana’s law did what the initiative supporters want D.C. law to do: Prohibit corporations from donating money directly to candidates.
But the Montana ban did more than that — it bans all corporate spending “in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party” — and the court overruled it in such a way that the door remains open for the more narrowly drawn D.C. proposal.
In its one-page order (p. 15) today, the high court ruled on a single issue: whether last year’s Citizens United ruling applies to state law. “There can be no serious doubt that it does,” the court wrote. But Citizens United, while opening the door for unlimited corporate spending on independent political committees, did not nix bans on direct contributions to candidates — such the federal ban that’s been in place for more than a century.
“The issue in Montana was whether [Citizens United] extended to states where you had a demonstrated history of corruption by corporate spending,” said Marc Elias, a Democratic campaign finance lawyer.
There was some thought among campaign finance lawyers that the Montana case might be an opportunity for the court to revisit the direct-contributions issue. But by summarily overturning the Montana law without hearing arguments next fall, it chose to pass. However, it might not pass on a future case that presents the question more directly.
That case might be U.S. v. Danielczyk, Elias said — currently being litigated across the Potomac. In that case, two businessmen were charged with using corporate funds to illegally reimburse people who donated to Hillary Clinton’s 2008 presidential campaign. Last June, a U.S. District Court judge handling the case overturned the federal ban on corporate contributions to candidates, citing Citizens United. The case is on appeal to the Fourth Circuit in Richmond, which heard oral arguments last month.
Long story short, the backers of what’s now known as Initiative 70 are in the clear constitutionally — for now. To get on the ballot, they must deliver approximately 23,000 valid signatures to the D.C. Board of Elections by July 9.