Supreme Court Rejects Montana Law, Rules That Citizens United Applies To States

An unsurprising decision from the Supreme Court.

There was no ruling in the Affordable Health Care Act cases today, but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t an eventful day at the Supreme Court of the United States. Right off the bat, for example, the Court issued its list of Orders from the final conference of the year, which was held last Thursday, at which it considered the last batch of cases it would accept for argument in the term that begins in October.

One of the cases that was pending in that regard was a case from Montana regarding a law that had sat on the state’s books since 1912 which forbade corporations from making “an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party.” It is, quite obviously, directly contradictory to the holding in Citizens United and there were at least some legal and political pundits who hoped that the case would be an opportunity to reconsider its decision in that case. Instead, the Court issued a rare summary reversal of the Montana Supreme Court decision upholding the law against a Constitutional challenge based on the Citizens United case:

WASHINGTON (AP) — The Supreme Court on Monday reaffirmed its 2-year-old decision allowing corporations to spend freely to influence elections. The justices struck down a Montana law limiting corporate campaign spending.

By a 5-4 vote, the court’s conservative justices said the decision in the Citizens United case in 2010 applies to state campaign finance laws and guarantees corporate and labor union interests the right to spend freely to advocate for or against candidates for state and local offices.

The majority turned away pleas from the court’s liberal justices to give a full hearing to the case because massive campaign spending since the January 2010 ruling has called into question some of its underpinnings.

The same five justices said in 2010 that corporations have a constitutional right to be heard in election campaigns. The decision paved the way for unlimited spending by corporations and labor unions in elections for Congress and the president, as long as the dollars are independent of the campaigns they are intended to help. The decision, grounded in the freedom of speech, appeared to apply equally to state contests.

But Montana aggressively defended its 1912 law against a challenge from corporations seeking to be free of spending limits, and the state Supreme Court sided with the state. The state court said a history of corruption showed the need for the limits, even as Justice Anthony Kennedy declared in his Citizens United opinion that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”

Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia, as well as Sen. John McCain and other congressional champions of stricter regulations on campaign money, joined with Montana.

Two liberal justices who were in dissent in Citizens United — Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen Breyer — already had challenged Kennedy’s view that the independent campaign spending could not be corrupting by virtue of the absence of links to a campaign.

When the court blocked the Montana ruling in February, Ginsburg issued a brief statement for herself and Breyer saying that campaign spending since the decision makes “it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.'”

The majority’s decision in the case was released Per Curium and was only one page long, in essence it simply said that Citizens United applies to state laws as well:

The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law. There can be no serious doubt that it does. See U. S. Const., Art. VI, cl. 2. Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.

This is neither surprising nor should it really be controversial. Given the two-year old Citizens United decision, there’s really no question that Montana’s law had to be struck down because it conflicted with the First Amendment. As the opinion notes, there is no meaningful way to distinguish the law in Montana from the one that was at issue in Citizens United, and the Court held long ago that the First Amendment is applicable to the states. What this was really all about, though, wasn’t the Montana law, but Citizens United itself and it isn’t at all surprising that the Justices who were in the majority then were not inclined to reconsider their decision today. The same goes, of course, for the Justices who were in dissent in that case, and they all signed off on an opinion written by Justice Breyer dissenting from the denial of certiorari:

[E]ven if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court’s legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court’s finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana.Given the history and political landscape in Montana, thatcourt concluded that the State had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations. 2011 MT 328, ¶¶ 36-37, 363 Mont. 220, 235-236, 271 P. 3d 1, 36-37. Thus, Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so.

Were the matter up to me, I would vote to grant thepetition for certiorari in order to reconsider Citizens United or, at least, its application in this case. But given the Court’s per curiam disposition, I do not see a significant possibility of reconsideration.

Again, none of this is a surprise and it likely would’ve been a waste of judicial and legal resources for the Court to even hear the appeal in this case. The result would have been the same in any case, it just would have been delayed by six months or so. This does seem to show that Citizens United remains a controversial decision in side the Court, something demonstrated by the fact that there was a dissent issue in the case to begin with. What the decision means, of course, is that state limits on campaign spending will be coming under greater scrutiny now, and we’re likely headed into an entirely new area of the law.

Here’s the opinion:

American Traditions Partnership v. Bullock

FILED UNDER: Law and the Courts, US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Doug Mataconis
About Doug Mataconis
Doug Mataconis held a B.A. in Political Science from Rutgers University and J.D. from George Mason University School of Law. He joined the staff of OTB in May 2010 and contributed a staggering 16,483 posts before his retirement in January 2020. He passed far too young in July 2021.


  1. al-Ameda says:

    So there can be no reasonable regulation of campaign spending, except for, perhaps, full disclosure of contributions, and that wasn’t part of the mix here.

    This is a Gilded Age Supreme court.

  2. It should be noted that this ruling, along with MacDonald v. Chicago, demonstrates how phony the liberal leaning justices’ oft repeated claims about deference to precedence are. Precedence is only important when it’s a precedence you agree with.

  3. Johnny Casereader says:
  4. Ben Wolf says:

    This is a court totally out of control. In effectively blessing money with equivalency to speech it has given moneyed interests more speech than anyone else and institutionalized corruption. Every prediction by the libertarian-right that Citizens United wouldn’t flood the political system with unaccountable and uncontrollable money has proven completely wrong. Will they admit it? Not a friggin’ chance.

  5. Ben Wolf says:

    Comment caught in spam filter.

  6. al-Ameda says:

    @Stormy Dragon:

    Precedence is only important when it’s a precedence you agree with.

    I agree. There definitely can be an activist conservative Supreme Court.

  7. al-Ameda says:

    @Johnny Casereader:


    I’m sorry for your loss.

  8. Not to be picky but, it’s “precedent” and it is always subject to review and interpretation

    Or, are you suggesting the Brown v. Board of Education court should not have overruled Plessy and that the Lawrence v. Texas court should not have overruled Bowers v. Hardwick

  9. @Doug Mataconis:

    Or, are you suggesting the Brown v. Board of Education court should not have overruled Plessy and that the Lawrence v. Texas court should not have overruled Bowers v. Hardwick

    No, I’m not suggesting that, but I also don’t claim to value adherence to precedent solely for precedent’s sake, the way many on the left do. That I think is the distinction: both sides ignore precedent’s they don’t like, but the right generally doesn’t argue they should.

  10. anjin-san says:

    Ah, government of the rich, by the rich, and for the rich…

  11. Stan says:

    Sheldon Adelson will donate tens of millions of dollars during this election cycle to further his two main causes, revisionist Zionism and his own pocketbook. But he’s not coordinating with candidates, even when he has long private meetings with them, so there’s no corruption or even the appearance of corruption, using Justice Kennedy’s moronic wording.

    I don’t know what role Citizens United will play in the 2012 election, but it’s gone a long way toward making the Supreme Court a laughing stock. “We may have democracy or we may have wealth concentrated in the hands of a few, but we cannot have both.” Louis Brandeis said that around a hundred years ago. His statement was true then and its even more true now.

  12. Ron Beasley says:

    You can only think Citizens is a good thing if you are in favor of a corrupt plutocracy.

  13. the Q says:

    Scalia is a flatulent prick and his “legal reputation” when this country regains its sanity (read when all the baby boomers are dead) will be ridiculed for its vacuous right wing extremism.

    The Dred Scott case, Plessey, Slaughterhouse, Korematsu and citizens united will all be linked together in the SCOTUS hall of shame.

    As I have mentioned in these comments many times, the greatest generation’s ethos was share the wealth, the baby boomer’s ethos is steal the wealth and don’t get caught.

    Like Penzias and Wilson who discovered background radiation and its affect on everything in the universe, the boomers worship of reagan, greed, corporate oligarchy and selfishness has destroyed the seed-corn that many previous generations of Americans worked hard to produce and for which they sacrificed greatly.

    Good riddance to all the incredibly corrupt boomers of the 1940s.

    Stein labelled the WW! generation as “lost”. If she were alive the moniker for the boomers would be “worthless”

  14. Tsar Nicholas says:

    @the Q: A child psychiatrist actually could make a living off that comment.

    In any event, Citizens United was a useful step in undoing that McCain-Feingold abomination, but truth be told the stench won’t fully be lifted until the SCOTUS goes ahead and directly overrules McConnell v. FEC.

  15. the Q says:

    Tsar, tell all the boys (and girls) who have fought in all the wars that while they were squatting in rice paddies and negotiating hedgerows and sandy south pacific beaches, they should take comfort in knowing their sacrifice was not in vain….they were fighting for the right of billionaires to hijack democracy and buy elections with a tsunami of money that is not reported.

    So, if China decides Congress is getting ready to pass laws detrimental to their interest, well why not funnel $5 billion into a PAC that will run a presidential candidate sympathetic to their interests.

    And if he/she wins, what are your thoughts then?

    What a swell decision on the part of SCOTUS?

    And I will bet a lung you are from the cohort which should be labeled worthless?