09 January 2012

A good day for democracy in Montana

One of the biggest blows against democracy in American history occurred in 2010 when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in the Citizens United case that government could not place limits on independent spending for political purposes by corporations and unions. The ruling, by essentially giving corporations the same First Amendment rights as citizens, opened the door to even further corruption of the American political system by big money, in effect allowing plutocracy to further dominate democracy.

But last week, the Montana Supreme Court took exception. In an extraordinary decision, the Court upheld the state's 1912-era corporate contribution limits. The decision applies only to state elections, but if appealed, and it probably will be, could provide a long-awaited opportunity for the U.S. Supreme Court to revisit the issue.

Writing for the majority, Justice  Mike McGrath stated, “Clearly the impact of unlimited corporate donations creates a dominating impact on the political process and inevitably minimizes the impact of individual citizens.” The Court ruled that various factors—a history of citizens fighting corporate corruption, political traditions of low-budget campaigning, and the vulnerability of judicial elections to corporate spending—were sufficiently compelling to preserve the century-old ban on corporate spending. It said it wanted Montana to remain a state where candidates run low-budget, personal campaigns and do not rely on anonymous, well-financed messaging from outsiders.

Even a dissenting judge, James C. Nelson, who opposed the ruling only because he felt bound to defer to the U.S. Supreme Court, lashed out at the Citizen United's decision. "I do not have to agree with the [U.S.] Supreme Court’s decision," he wrote, "And, to be absolutely clear, I do not agree with it. ... The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping."

Montana has a long history of dealing with corporate power. In the early 20th century, when copper companies dominated the state, Anaconda Co. controlled judges, legislators and newspapers, prompting the people to fight back with the legislation that the Court has now defended.

I will leave the last word to Justice Nelson: "Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons."

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