HELENA, Mont. (AP) — The Montana Supreme Court made it clear Wednesday during oral arguments that it won't be easy to preserve the state's century-old ban on corporate political spending — but the justices also had tough words for the clandestine organization behind several lawsuits aimed at dismantling campaign finance laws.
A group called Western Tradition Partnership, which once had roots in Montana but now calls itself American Tradition Partnership and boasts a northern Virginia phone number and a Colorado incorporation, is asking the high court to uphold a lower court ruling declaring unconstitutional parts of the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act. The case piggybacks a U.S. Supreme Court decision from last year granting political speech rights to corporations.
American Tradition Partnership has one other state lawsuit and one federal lawsuit seeking to make it easier for political candidates to get money in large chunks from whomever they please. The case heard Wednesday in the Supreme Court seeks to undo a Montana ban on independent political expenditures straight from corporate coffers.
Chief Justice Mike McGrath sought more information about the group.
"We don't even know who Western Tradition is," McGrath told Bozeman attorney Margot Barg, who works for the Wittich firm. "So who is Western Tradition?"
Barg said it is a Colorado corporation that would like to be involved in political speech.
For the first time, the group filed paperwork in July to organize a registered political action committee — using the law office address of Republican state Sen. Art Wittich of Bozeman.
The group has gained notoriety tangling with state campaign finance authorities, and riling Democrats and even some Republicans with hard-hitting attack mailers. It has done so without so far filing disclosures on spending or donors, previously arguing it does not need to do so.
At least one justice expressed sympathy for the state's case to preserve its ban on independent corporate spending for or against candidates.
But justices also peppered Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock with questions seeking guidance on how they can possibly ignore the U.S. Supreme Court decision in the high-profile "Citizens United" that threw out parts of an old federal law prohibiting corporations and unions from paying to air third-party campaign ads.
Justice James Nelson said he agreed with Bullock's stance that the century-old ban the attorney general said was passed by voters in reaction to rampant corruption of the day of the "Copper Kings" where big money bought candidates. The justice said "money corrupts, we all know that."
But Nelson said the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Citizens United decision is now "the law of the land."
"You are trying here to carve out one little niche where it doesn't apply," Nelson told Bullock.
Bullock argued corporations can legally speak politically now, with restrictions. Corporate PACs regularly collect voluntary donations from officers, stockholders and employees. And they can raise money in campaigns for or against ballot measures.
Bullock pointed to several examples in law where the government burdens political speech with restrictions, such as the requirement that political donations be accounted for. He said the state has a compelling interest in making sure its history of rampant corporate political corruption is not repeated.
And Bullock said the Montana court could perhaps leave the law in place, while exempting voluntary associations of people who form corporations and perhaps sole proprietorship corporations. That would seem to offer exemptions for two other corporations in the lawsuit, the gun advocate group Montana Shooting Sports Association and Champion Painting, owned by a Bozeman painter.
The attorney general suggested the ban could remain in place for corporations owned by stockholders.
Justice Brian Morris, pointing to bans on foreign residents spending in U.S. elections, asked if a ban on foreign corporations would be a constitutional restriction.
"That is a very good question," Barg said.
The Western Tradition lawyer faced other tough questions.
McGrath, who used to have Bullock's job, said many other constitutional rights are not granted to corporations — such as the right to vote.
And Nelson pointed out that Barg is arguing in this case that the state can better police corruption by requiring disclosure of the of the political spending — even though American Tradition Partnership is fighting current disclosure requirements of all types in its other cases.
"Isn't that hypocritical?" Nelson said. "It is kind of hypocritical to come up here and sell us on the idea that disclosure will take care of the problem. You want that thrown out the window too."
Barg said voters should hear what the corporations have to say.
"The important thing in Citizens United is that more speech, not less, is good," she told the justices.
Democrats worry that new, unlimited corporate spending will flood high-profile races, like U.S. Sen. Jon Tester's re-election, with anonymous corporate cash. The party pointed to Wednesday's endorsement of Republican U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg by the Citizens United group behind the original corporate speech case as evidence that such groups will be involved more in Montana.
Republicans have been more supportive of Western Tradition Partnership, even offering help in the new federal lawsuit against Montana campaign laws.