The supreme court has struck down a century-old Montana law limiting corporate campaign spending, dashing hopes of a rethink over a controversial 2010 decision by the justices that allows for vast amounts of private cash being used to influence national elections.
Campaigners had hoped the court would look again at the so-called Citizens United ruling, which paved the way for an unprecedented rise in the money flowing into congressional and presidential campaigns from corporate sources.
But in a 5-4 vote, split along the same conservative-liberal lines as the earlier case, the court’s conservative justices said the 2010 judgement also applies to state campaign finance laws.
“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,” the justices ruled.
As such they ruled in favour of three corporations – a political advocacy group called American Tradition Partnership Inc, a non-profit organisation that promotes shooting sports and a small family-owned painting business – that challenged Montana for violating their free-speech rights.
Under the Citizens United rulings, corporations are allowed to spend unlimited money to support or oppose political candidates in federal elections, as long as the finance is independent of the campaigns it is intended to help.
The 2010 judgement cited a company’s right to free speech, implying that it would cover state elections as well as federal.
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”.
But the state of Montana felt differently and sought to defend its 1912 law limiting corporate spending. Montana’s supreme court sided with the state defending its state law and said that a history of corruption showed the need for limits.
Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia backed Montana in its bid for stricter regulations on campaign money. They had hoped for a debate on the Citizens United decision which could have led to its reconsideration.
Monday’s ruling comes amid growing concern over the power of so-called Super Pacs in the current election cycle.
The fundraising vehicles, a direct product of the Citizens United ruling, have to be run separately from a candidate’s official campaign. But critics claim that the lines are blurred to such a degree as to make the distinction meaningless.
Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer wanted a full hearing in the Montana case, arguing that the Citizens United should come under fresh scrutiny because of concern over its effect on campaign finance.
Ginsberg said in February the case “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”.
James Bopp, lead attorney for the three corporations challenging Montana, had argued in his appeal to the supreme court: “If Montana can ban core political speech because of Montana’s unique characteristics, free speech will be seriously harmed. Speakers will be silenced because of corruption by others over a century ago.”
The Supreme Court summarily ruled for the corporations in a brief opinion and reversed the ruling of the Montana supreme court.