On Monday, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed the scope of the 2010 landmark Citizens United decision by striking down the Montana Supreme Court’s ruling defending the state’s statute limiting campaign contributions. The Montana Supreme Court argued, in a most bizarre fashion, that the nature of Montana’s government made it more susceptible to corporate campaign corruption and thus was not bound by the directives of the 2010 case.
Issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government […] [c]learly Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute.
The SCOTUS, for its part, firmly asserted its doctrinal supremacy over state law, asserting:
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 [...] Montana’s arguments in support of the judgment below either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case.
Of no particular surprise is that the SCOTUS decision was split between liberal and conservative justices–with the conservative ruling winning out due to a 5-4 majority. The liberal justices chose to use this case as a way to dissent against the Citizens United ruling, as opposed to handle the Montana case as per the established SCOTUS jurisprudence. Ultimately, however, the dissenting justices decided against reopening the case for another judicial hearing.
Justice Breyer, in the dissenting opinion, contended:
Were the matter up to me, I would vote to grant the petition 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. Consequently, I vote instead to deny the petition.
Though there are certainly valid concerns vis-a-vis conservative judicial activism on the Supreme Court, the liberal justices’ unwillingness to defend the law as stated, in this case, is disconcerting. It was much less a matter of the written word of the Citizens United ruling, so much as it was the personal opinions of the liberal justices. Of course, peradventure, legal terminology and general American diction could have shifted substantially since the case, but given that the ruling was only made some two years ago, it goes without saying that such is unlikely.
Cato’s Trevor Burrus points out a section of Montana Supreme Court Justice James C. Nelson’s dissent that acknowledges clear federal supremacy, and suggests that the Supreme Court’s liberal justices were engaged in re-litigating the past:
… this case is ultimately not about my agreement or disagreement with the Attorney General or our satisfaction or dissatisfaction with the Citizens United decision. Whether we agree with the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the First Amendment is irrelevant. In accordance with our federal system of government, our obligations here are to acknowledge that the Supreme Court’s interpretation of the United States Constitution is, for better or for worse, binding on this Court and on the officers of this state, and to apply the law faithful to the Supreme Court’s ruling.