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Citizens United, Part 2? Supreme Court Overturns Montana Law Banning Corporate Spending on Elections

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The Supreme Court has struck down a century-old Montana law banning corporate campaign spending. Montana was sued when it invoked the ban to prevent corporate money from flooding state and local political races. A right-wing nonprofit argued the state’s ban violates the 2010 Citizens United ruling that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts in federal elections. On Monday, the Supreme Court agreed, blocking Montana’s law in a divided five-to-four ruling. The decision has drawn a rare bipartisan rebuke from Montana officials. We speak to John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech for People and the legal director of Voter Action. “For more than a century, Montana had [barred] corporate money in elections,” Bonifaz says. “Now the United States Supreme Court has said to the state of Montana that the facts don’t matter. … [We demand] a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court and to make clear that we the people, not we the corporations, rule in America.” [includes rush transcript]

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This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: In a case billed as ”Citizens United II,” the U.S. Supreme Court has struck down a Montana law that limits corporate political spending. Montana was sued when it tried to enforce a century-old ban on corporate spending in state and local political campaigns in the wake of the 2010 Citizens United ruling. American Tradition Partnership, a conservative nonprofit that fights so-called “environmental extremism,” argued the state’s ban violates the 2010 ruling that allowed corporations to spend unlimited amounts in federal elections.

The Supreme Court agreed on Monday, and in a divided five-to-four ruling it blocked Montana’s law. Dissenting Justice Stephen Breyer challenged the decision, writing, quote, “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,” unquote.

After the ruling, Montana’s governor, Brian Schweitzer, a Democrat, and Lieutenant Governor John Bohlinger, a Republican, released a video response to the ruling.

LT. GOV. JOHN BOHLINGER: I’m John Bohlinger, Montana’s lieutenant governor, and I’m a Republican. Now, Republicans and Democrats don’t always agree on policy matters, but there’s one thing we do agree on, and that is, corporate money should not influence the outcome of an election.

GOV. BRIAN SCHWEITZER: I’m Brian Schweitzer. I’m the governor of Montana, and I’m a Democrat. The United States Supreme Court has just told the American people that the facts don’t matter when it comes to protecting Montana and the country from corruption of corporate money in our democracy. Here in Montana, we have a proud, 100-year history of keeping corporate money out of our elections. Corporations aren’t people, and they should not control our government. Montana stood up for democracy, here at home and on behalf of America, by fighting to keep our ban on corporate campaign spending. The United States Supreme Court blocked our state law, because they said corporations are people. I’ll believe that when Texas executes one.

AMY GOODMAN: Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer. In the video message, he went on to support an amendment to the Constitution in order to overturn Citizens United.

For more on the Montana decision, we’re joined by John Bonifaz, co-founder and director of Free Speech for People and the legal director of Voter Action.

John, welcome to Democracy Now! He’s joining us from Western Mass. Can you talk about the Supreme Court decision that struck down Montana’s century-old campaign finance law?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Yes, Amy. Thank you for having me.

This was a radical action by five justices of the United States Supreme Court, as radical as their action was two-and-a-half years ago when they issued the Citizens United ruling, sweeping away a century of precedent that had barred corporate money in elections. Montana had a law in 1912, the Corrupt Practices Act, as the governor of Montana says in that video, that was designed to deal with the threat of corruption in Montana at the time from copper kings controlling the politics and the government of Montana. And for more than a century, Montana had this experience of barring corporate money in elections. Now the United States Supreme Court has said to the state of Montana that the facts don’t matter. They’re not going to listen to the history of Montana, and they’re not going to look at the history of the past two-and-a-half years of unlimited corporate money coming into our elections in Montana and elsewhere around the nation. This is a direct threat to our democracy. These justices are countering what the Framers intended with the Constitution and what our democracy is supposed to be about, and it demands a constitutional amendment to overturn the Supreme Court and to make clear that we the people, not we the corporations, rule in America.

AMY GOODMAN: We just heard Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer supporting a constitutional amendment. Can you talk about this movement?

JOHN BONIFAZ: This is a growing and significant movement. On the day of the Citizens United ruling, we at FreeSpeechforPeople.org and others called for this amendment to overrule Citizens United and to make clear that people, not corporations, shall govern in America. And since that time, we’ve seen a growing mobilization across the country of people calling for an amendment to reclaim our democracy. Four states are now on record—Hawaii, Rhode Island, Vermont, New Mexico—calling for an amendment. Other states are likely to join that fight soon. Montana is putting on the ballot a ballot initiative for voters to cast their voices on the statewide ballot in November for an amendment. Hundreds of municipalities across the country have called for an amendment. Over a thousand business leaders have joined that call. And now there are some dozen amendment bills pending in the United States Congress calling for an amendment, with hearings to be held before the U.S. Senate Judiciary Committee this July. This movement is really about making clear that it is people, not corporations, that shall govern in America. And people all across this country are standing up to defend our democracy.

AMY GOODMAN: Can you explain exactly what the Supreme Court ruled this week, John Bonifaz?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, you know, it’s quite extraordinary, because this Supreme Court decided not even to take the Montana case. What the court did is it summarily reversed the state Supreme Court ruling in Montana that had upheld the Montana Corrupt Practices Act. Summary reversal is a legal term that the court uses for matters that don’t even deserve a hearing on the merits. And yet, we had new facts that had been presented to the court that they didn’t have in Citizens United. It’s important to remember that these five justices took the Citizens United case from what was a rather technical question around the use of a video and whether or not it complied with the McCain-Feingold law, the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act, and they transformed that case into a broader question where the facts were not present as to whether or not a century of precedent should be overturned dealing with corporate money in elections. And so, what we have now is a United States Supreme Court that refuses to hear the facts. They refuse to hear this case on its merits despite 23 states pleading to the court that they do so. And we now will see the unlimited kind of corporate spending in our elections this November that so threatens our democracy. And we’ve already begun to see that this cycle, and we saw it in the 2010 cycle, as well.

AMY GOODMAN: John, I want to play a comment from the Wall Street Journal's editorial page editor, Paul Gigot, responding to the high court's decision.

PAUL GIGOT: And what the court said was, “Did you read Citizens United? It says it’s the law of the land, gentlemen. So follow it.” So it was a succinct, short, sweet rebuke of the Supreme Court. And why this was interesting politically is because a lot of the liberal justices had wanted the Supreme Court to rehear, to hear—to take, formally accept this case and rehear it—have the oral arguments and everything else—as an opportunity to overturn Citizens United, or at least modify it. And the Supreme Court justices, the five of them, who were the majority in Citizens United, basically said, “No, we’re not of a mind to rehear this.”

AMY GOODMAN: That’s Wall Street Journal editorial page editor Paul Gigot portraying the court’s decision as a victory for supporters of Citizens United. But some say the court’s refusal to hear the case helped avoid a chance to strengthen Citizens United under Chief Justice Roberts. Your response, John Bonifaz?

JOHN BONIFAZ: Well, I think it’s pretty clear what these justices are engaged in, the five. This was a sharply divided court in Citizens United, and it remained sharply divided in refusing to hear the Montana case. Four justices dissented on that question. But the fact here is, is that Justice Stevens, in his dissent in Citizens United, a Ford appointee, a Republican, stated that the Citizens United ruling was a radical departure from settled First Amendment principle. And we know that the Framers never intended for corporations to have the rights of people under the Constitution. James Madison spoke of corporations as a “necessary evil” subject to proper limitations and guards. Thomas Jefferson said he hoped to “crush in its birth the aristocracy of our moneyed corporations.” And for more than a century, we’ve recognized that corporations have no role in our elections. So the radical action here is by these five justices, who once again refused to hear the facts, refused to look at the history, and now are telling the state of Montana that their century-old law should now be no longer enforced.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, finally, where you see this all going at this point? Interestingly, conservatives who often support states’ rights, are cheering this decision that overturns this hundred-year-old law in Montana, that Montanans, Democrats and Republicans alike, are so proud of.

JOHN BONIFAZ: You know, I think we face a crisis in our democracy today, and this is a moment in our history where people across this nation are going to continue to rise up across the political spectrum and make clear that it is a government of, for and by the people that we will defend. We have done polling that shows across-the-board support for a constitutional amendment to overturn this ruling and to make clear that people, not corporations, shall govern America. Sixty-eight percent of Republicans support that idea; it’s higher for Democrats and independents, in the eighties. But the bottom line here is that people understand that government is not supposed to be of, for and by the corporations.

And at FreeSpeechforPeople.org and at groups all across this country and individual citizens all across this country, there is a clarion call for demanding our democracy back. We’re having a conversation live tomorrow night, Thursday night at 8:00 p.m., with Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, and people can join us on Twitter, live on Twitter. Find out more on our Twitter page at FSFP to join that conversation. But the fact is, is that, at the end of the day, you know, we will demand a constitutional amendment like we have faced these moments in our history before. Twenty-seven times before in our nation’s history we’ve amended the Constitution, and this is one of the moments in our history where we will do so again.

AMY GOODMAN: John Bonifaz, I want to thank you for being with us, co-founder and director of Free Speech for People and the legal director of Voter Action.

Speaking of Supreme Court decisions, tune in Thursday. We’ll air a special one-hour live broadcast at 10:00 Eastern [Daylight] Time, covering the U.S. Supreme Court’s landmark decision on President Obama’s healthcare law. It’s expected to be handed down just after 10:00 Eastern [Daylight] Time. We’ll be online at democracynow.org, and any radio and TV station is welcome to broadcast our live story. The question is, can I have—this is Democracy Now!, democracynow.org, The War and Peace Report. When we come back, dark money.

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Dark Money: Inside the Final Frontier of Unlimited Political Spending (Part 2)

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