The court faces that question in a flurry of contradictory arguments prompted by a decision by the Montana Supreme Court late last year.
In upholding a 100-year-old state law, the Montana justices seemed to be openly defying Citizens United’s holding that the First Amendment grants corporations, and by extension labor unions, the right to spend unlimited amounts of their treasuries to support or oppose candidates.
The Supreme Court has already blocked the Montana decision, and the justices may simply set their counterparts in Helena straight by summarily reversing the finding.
But pressure is being applied — by members of Congress and nearly half the states, not to mention Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer — to at least let Montana make its argument.
The Montana Supreme Court acknowledged a conflict when it voted 5 to 2 to uphold the state law, created by voters in 1912 to combat the power of the so-called Copper Kings who controlled state politics. It said the state’s characteristics, including a dependence on agriculture and mining and low campaign costs, made it “especially vulnerable” to corporate control.
Those urging the court to grant a full hearing of the Montana case take aim at the most important finding of Citizens United. That was the declaration in Justice Anthony M. Kennedy’s majority opinion that “we now conclude that independent expenditures, including those made by corporations, do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
“That cannot be so,” the new bipartisan team of Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) told the court. “Whether independent expenditures pose dangers of corruption or apparent corruption depends on the actual workings of the electoral system; it is a factual question, not a legal syllogism.”
The court under Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. has incrementally undermined McCain’s landmark campaign finance act by saying it doesn’t meet First Amendment requirements. McCain has in turn been dismissive of a court — without a single member who has ever run for public office — that he says is hopelessly naive about how campaign finance affects the political process.
Groups that favor campaign finance restrictions say lower courts have misinterpreted the meaning of
to allow the rise of super PACs that are simply auxiliaries of candidates. They add that the FEC has been hapless in providing the kind of contribution disclosures that the Supreme Court acknowledged were necessary for an informed electorate.
Today’s political action committees are “wholly distinct from the organizations this court has seen in the past,” the Brennan Center for Justice told the court in its amicus brief.