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Are Corporations People? Not in Big Sky Country

January 6, 2012

It’s not often that an entire state takes an activist stance, but on December 30, the State Supreme Court of Montana turned every citizen of their state into an outlaw. And by and large, Montanans are happy to play that part.

Last year, the hyper-conservative Supreme Court decided in Citizens United v Federal Election Commission, that corporations, for the purposes of campaign contributions and campaign electioneering, had the same status as a person. Companies had the same rights to make independent campaign contributions and to communicate preferences for selected candidates, regardless of the fact that a corporation could swing votes, pour money into elections to secure key wins, and coerce employees to vote in a certain ways.

Citizens United has been decried throughout the legal community, across social justice groups, and now on the streets with every Occupy Movement. It’s been called the worst Supreme Court decision ever made. (The Dred Scott decision got bumped to second place.)

It is incumbent on states to obey federal rulings. But the Montana State Supreme Court has, in essence, said, “This one is just too stupid to follow,” and declared that the State Supreme Court has the obligation to protect Montanans from bad laws. Laws like this one, that give corporations too much power and seize power away from the votes of actual citizens.

The court noted that corporations are not deprived of free speech, in Montana or in any other state, as Citizens United claimed. The majority opinion pointed to the flocks of lobbyists and political committees that head to Helena each time the Montana legislature is in session as proof  that corporations already have more than enough influence over votes in the State House and Senate.

Even the dissenting opinions spoke to the idiocy of Citizens United. One dissenting judge, Justice James Nelson, explained he felt he had the obligation to follow federal rulings, but even he thoroughly dissed the Citizens decision, which he called “utter nonsense.” He wrote:

…the notion that corporations are disadvantaged in the political realm is unbelievable. Indeed, it has astounded most Americans…The truth is that corporations wield enormous power in Congress…It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins.

Montana has a legacy of free-thinking and a kind of “don’t tread on me” attitude, which is reflected in its court decisions. It also has a political history where electioneering used to include gunning people down in the streets if they disagreed with the boss on specific voting issues. The Copper Kings (Montana’s version of lumber barons) made successful attempts to buy politicians and judges and to terrorize voters at the polls. So the state has very strong anti-electioneering laws, in place since 1906.

Administrative agencies in five states have declared Citizens United unconstitutional, but the Montana State Supreme Court is the first time a state judiciary stood up and said, “This federal law will not be allowed here.”

Let’s hope that other state supreme courts follow this example. Let’s picture the nation’s Supreme Court flooded with state court rulings blocking the Citizens United attack on democracy.

Right now, the 1 percent through its various front organizations is sputtering with rage over Montana’s heroic activist effort. The American Tradition Partnership was the original focus of the judiciary review; an “advocacy group” for “fighting the radical environmental agenda.” It complained, “The Montana Supreme Court, through this decision, has shown contempt for the overriding law of the land and has thumbed its nose at the United States Supreme Court.”

You nailed it, ATP. Let the thumbing of noses and the contempt for capitalist control spread across the country. And thank you, Montana.

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