HELENA — A Helena district court judge on Monday said a ban on corporate political contributions in effect for nearly a century is unconstitutional.
District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock tossed out the state’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act that prohibits corporations from making independent political expenditures.
Sherlock ruled in favor of the Colorado-based conservative think-tank Western Tradition Partnership in making the ruling.
That group challenged the law after the U.S. Supreme Court this year threw out parts of a federal law that prohibited corporations and unions from paying for advertisements for or against political candidates.
Attorney General Steve Bullock argued that the ban is unique and should stand despite the federal Supreme Court decision. He said the state law was enacted in response to corporate mining barons taking over state politics.
In a statement Monday, Bullock said he will appeal the decision to the Montana Supreme Court.
“Our state has a unique and compelling story where corporations, spending freely from their coffers, corrupted the political process,” Bullock said. “That history led to the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912, a law that has served us well for nearly a century.
“While I have a great deal of respect for the district court, the people of Montana have long said that its citizens, not corporations, should decide the outcome of elections,” he said. “We knew that this case would ultimately reach the Montana Supreme Court, and I will continue to stand up for the people’s law and appeal the district court’s decision.”
Donald Ferguson, Western Tradition Partnership’s executive director, also commented on the case Monday, saying Sherlock’s decision “restored fairness and balance to elections,” and protects the First Amendment right to free speech.
“The First Amendment was intended to protect citizens from the government, not to shield politicians from criticism,” he said. “The court has restored fairness and balance to elections by allowing employers to speak freely about the radical environmentalist candidates and issues that threaten your right to earn a living.”
The group’s attorney, Margot Barg of the Bozeman-based law firm of state Senate candidate Art Wittich, also released a statement.
“The judge rejected the paternalistic argument of the Attorney General, and applied the U.S. Supreme Court’s recent holding ... to strike down those portions of Montana’s law that chill political speech,” she said. “It’s a win not only for the groups speaking, but all Montanans who benefit from a robust political dialogue so they can make fully informed decisions.”
Members of the state’s Congressional delegation also weighed in on Sherlock’s decision Monday.
Sen. Jon Tester said corporate spending in politics “flies in the face of transparency” and that he wants to see Sherlock’s decision appealed.
“Transparency in our government and in our political campaigns has been a powerful Montana value for generations, yet recent court rulings have us racing to the bottom,” Tester said. “The decision to allow private — even foreign-owned — corporations to spend unlimited money in secret flies in the face of transparency. It runs against the very notion that America’s Democracy is built by American people — not by a few well-funded special interests.
“Montana saw the writing on the wall nearly a century ago and passed a good law that deserves to be preserved for our kids and grandkids, not undone in court,” Tester added. “I join thousands of Montanans who look forward to an appeal.”
Sen. Max Baucus said the decision could mean out-of-state corporations could “drown out” Montanans in the state’s elections.
“I am disappointed in this ruling that will open the door to large out-of-state corporations to dominate Montana markets to sway Montana races,” he said. “This decision fails to address Montana’s unique political history. Montanans learned our lesson almost a century ago when copper kings leveraged their corporate influence to essentially buy elections. We’ve got to fight to make sure corporate money does not drown out the voices of individual Montanans.”
— The Associated Press contributed to this report.