WASHINGTON -- In an all-out broadside against the current state of campaign finance, Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) submitted a brief on Friday morning urging the U.S. Supreme Court to let stand Montana's century-old ban on corporate money in political campaigns despite the court's Citizens United ruling two years ago declaring unconstitutional a similar federal law sponsored by McCain.
They also took aim at the influence of super PACs, pointing to the Republican-leaning Crossroads GPS, the pro-Obama Priorities USA Action and the Tea Party's FreedomWorks.
In late December, the Montana Supreme Court had upheld the state's Corrupt Practices Act, which says that a "corporation may not make ... an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political party that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party." The court found, by a 5-2 vote, that Montana's history of political corruption at the hands of corporate interests -- namely its Gilded Age-era "Copper Kings" -- justified the ban, which was passed by referendum in 1912 by voters who had lost faith in the state's political process.
The plaintiffs in the current lawsuit are led by American Tradition Partnership, a conservative interest group dedicated to fighting "the radical environmentalist agenda." They have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to block the state decision, arguing that it conflicts with the Citizens United ruling's declaration that corporations' independent political expenditures do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption and therefore are fully protected speech under the First Amendment. The U.S. Supreme Court temporarily blocked the Montana decision in February and requested formal briefing to give the case a fuller airing.
Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, writing for herself and Justice Stephen Breyer, issued a statement accompanying that February order welcoming this sequel to Citizens United. "Montana's experience, and experience elsewhere since this Court's decision in Citizens United ... make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations 'do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,'" Ginsburg wrote. A full Supreme Court hearing "will give the court an opportunity to consider whether, in light of the huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates' allegiance, Citizens United should continue to hold sway."
In its formal petition to the Supreme Court, American Tradition Partnership dismissed Montana's fact-bound decision and Ginsburg's nod to the country's post-Citizens United experience.
"The facts are irrelevant," the petition argued. "The core holding of Citizens United ... is that the independence of independent expenditures means that they pose no cognizable quid-pro-quo-corruption risk and no other cognizable governmental interest justifies banning corporate independent expenditures."
McCain and Whitehouse strongly disagree in their brief.
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