Whatever the ultimate fate of Montana’s century-old law banning direct corporate spending on elections, we’re proud that our Montana Supreme Court ruled late last week that the law still applies here, despite the U.S. Supreme Court’s ruling in 2010 that companies can spend at will on campaigns. Even one of the two dissenting justices in the 5-2 ruling, Jim Nelson, who said the state needs to abide the federal decision, took the U.S. bench to task at the same time.

Nelson gave voice to what a lot of Montanans have been feeling about the blurred line between business and politics when 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 and in state legislatures. It is hard to tell where government ends and corporate America begins: the transition is seamless and overlapping.”

Extremely well said, and reason for deep concern when it comes to the public’s right to know who is spending how much money on which candidates and which issues each election.

It’s not a completely black-and-white case. We appreciate the link some people draw between money and speech, and whether or not we support the notion that corporations have all the same rights as citizens, we’re loathe to tell people how and where they can spend their — or their firms’ — bankrolls. It’s the issue of disclosure of that spending, though, that makes Citizens United such a particularly troubling decision (though the prospect of a flood of outside money worries us as well) and makes the ruling of Montana’s court so admirable. The Treasure State has a long and inglorious history of seeing its treasure plundered by out-of-state interests, who take the wealth with them and leave the mess behind. It was in the context of this corporate power playing that Montana’s law was initially authored an even century ago.

What to make, then, of the American Tradition Partnership (formerly Western Tradition Partnership), the group behind the challenge to Montana’s law? In a fundraising piece, the group told prospective supporters that “If you decide to support this program, no politician, no bureaucrat, and no radical environmentalist will ever know you made this program possible.” Are we the the only ones wondering what this group is trying to buy that it’s also trying to hide?

National news reports this week note that Iowans have never seen so much — or such negative — advertising in the run-up to that state’s presidential caucuses — a direct result of the Citizens United case. It’s hard to see how that assault is good for the voters of Iowa and ultimately for the country.

Money talks, and pretending otherwise isn’t realistic. But it’s not unreasonable to want to temper its voice to some leveling extent — and more importantly, to know who’s really doing the talking. We applaud the Montana Supreme Court for upholding a century-long attempt to give the people the strongest voice in state politics.


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