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Our View: Montana court was right on Citizens United case

A shout out goes to the Montana Supreme Court for its decision to uphold Montana's 99-year-old ban on corporate contributions to political campaigns.

The decision appears to fly in the face of the U.S. Supreme Court's dreadful decision in the Citizens United case that corporations are, for the sake of political contributions, the same as people.

Under the federal ruling, corporations can make anonymous contributions to groups who advocate positions and oppose political candidates. Groups organized by Republican Karl Rove have gotten a lot of attention, but Democrats are forming their own groups aimed at badmouthing Republicans.

Initially, it was believed that Republicans would benefit and Democrats would suffer under the U.S. ruling, but anonymously funded groups have played havoc with the election process during the Iowa Republican caucuses.

The losers in the Iowa fracas have not been Newt Gingrich or Mitt Romney, but the people of Iowa who have no clue who is financing the campaign that is obviously controlled by Romney supporters.

The high court ruling declared that there was no proof that such surreptitious organizations led to political corruption.

In arguing before the Montana Supreme Court, state Attorney General Steve Bullock said Montana should be exempted from the ruling because the Treasure State has a sorry history of corporate domination of the state political processes.

Before a referendum banned corporate contributions in 1913, Butte copper barons openly bought officer holders with massive bribes. One corporate bigwig, W.A. Clark, flagrantly handed out gobs of cash to state lawmakers, who then in turn, elected him to the United States Senate.

The state was a fiefdom of the robber barons.

In a refreshing break from the stately language used in court decisions, Chief Justice McGrath quoted humorist Mark Twain as saying Clark "has so excused and so sweetened corruption in Montana that it no longer has an offensive smell."

Sick of this skulduggery, in 1913, voters approved a referendum banning corporations from making donations and barring politicians from accepting them. They then changed the law to demand that people, not the state legislature, would elect U.S. Senators. The rest of the country followed suit in seven years.

Since then, with a few bumps in the road, Montana has been relatively free of graft and corruption, especially when compared to other states.

However, Bullock said that because the state has a small population base and it depends heavily on natural resources and agriculture, it is low-hanging fruit for corporations who might want to overstep their bounds and hand out cash for political causes.

Only the big stick of the strict laws have prevented sleazy corporations from engaging in political corruption, Bullock argued. Thus, the state qualifies for an exemption from the high court ruling, the attorney general declared.

The attorney general's argument, of course, did not sit well with the Western Tradition Partnership, the outfit that battled Bullock in court with co-plaintiff Montana Shooting Sports Association and its president, Gary Marbut.

Marbut argued that the Montana court's ruling would curtail his association's First Amendment rights. Now, you'll find no stronger supporter of the First Amendment than this newspaper. The whole point of our being is to encourage free debate and free speech about all issues. Everyone, regardless of their position on any issue, should have the right to freely speak about it.

However, no one who has heard his speeches before legislative committees, read his newsletters, followed his letters to the editor or read his op-ed pieces can seriously believe that poor Mr. Marbut's First Amendment rights are being gagged.

What is endangered is the tradition that Montanans hold dearly. If people want to make a $30 contribution to a city council, county commission or state senate candidate, they can do so without fear that a multi-national corporation can outspend them 1,000 to 1. The tradition of small-town, small-state democracy is endangered.

The case will almost certainly head to the U.S. Supreme Court, and we dread that the federal justices may overturn the Montana decision.

If they do, Bullock and the majority members of the Montana Supreme Court can be proud they took a valiant stand for what is right.


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