The U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5–4 Monday that states may not limit political campaign donations by corporations or unions. The court decided that it would not hear a challenge to its 2010 Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission campaign finance ruling that had been mounted by Montana's attorney general, Steve Bullock, in cooperation with counterparts in 21 other states and the District of Columbia, including Idaho's attorney general, Lawrence Wasden.
The narrow decision reverses a 2011 ruling by the Montana Supreme Court that had deemed the Citizens United ruling inapplicable to statewide elections, and therefore also strikes down a 1912 Montana law commonly known as the Corrupt Practices Act, which barred corporate spending on that state's elections.
Representatives of Idaho's two dominant political parties had markedly different reactions to the court's decision. Larry Grant, state party chair of the Idaho Democratic Party, reiterated the prevailing view within his party that corporations shouldn't be accorded the same political rights as individuals.
"It just seems clear to me that corporations are not people, and that corporations are subject to regulation because they are creatures of the state, whether that's the state or the federal government. So, I'm not quite sure I understand why our current Supreme Court thinks that corporations are entitled to more protection than an individual," Grant said. "Corporations have a better position than any other PAC, or an individual. As an individual, I'm limited as to how much money I can give to a candidate, limited as to how much money I can give to a party, so why should a corporation be able to use unlimited funds to influence politics when I can't?"
On the other hand, Barry Peterson, newly elected on Saturday as chairman of the Idaho Republican Party, emphasized the importance of equal treatment for all organizations under the law.
"My personal disposition is, if everybody's treated the same, if the Supreme Court has ruled that way, then it's something I can live with," Peterson said. "As long as everybody has the same playing field, then it's a fair game. I know that corporations are equally available to Republicans and Democrats alike, and both of them are associated with big ones—bigger than is comprehensible to me. Democrats have an advantage on the union side by a substantial margin, but nonetheless, the field is open. They can both play in the game."
In a commentary earlier this month, Wayne Hoffman, executive director of the Idaho Freedom Foundation, suggested that the real balance of power lies not between individuals and corporations, but between the private and public sectors.
"The private sector is hobbled," Hoffman wrote. "Free speech is restricted, barely tolerated. Meanwhile, bureaucrats, government agencies and units of government have unfettered access to the halls of power, and they use it. If people are really concerned about the 'corrupting influence' of money in elections, the answer isn’t to limit types of speech and who can do the speaking, but to limit the government."
In its majority opinion, the court said, "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," adding, "Montana's arguments in support of the judgment … either were already rejected in Citizens United, or fail to meaningfully distinguish that case."
The Citizens United ruling has generated significant political controversy during the past two years. Supporters have characterized it as a victory for freedom of speech, allowing individuals to pool their resources in order to engage in political expression that they would not have the ability to undertake separately. Detractors, on the other hand, have decried the decision as paving the way for moneyed special interests to exercise undue influence over the political process.
Although Wasden had joined in the effort to restrict the reach of the Citizens United ruling from affecting statewide elections, a representative from his office said that Wasden's participation was not intended as a rebuke to the intent of the ruling, but instead as a declaration that Idaho should determine the provisions of its own political process.
"The issue here was whether a state could determine its own policy in governing elections within that state," said Bob Cooper, director of constituent information and communication for the Idaho attorney general's office, to Boise State Public Radio. "As a matter of sovereignty and a matter of attempting to defend the state of Idaho’s ability to set its own rules for elections, the attorney general joined as an amicus in support of Montana’s position."
Note: The Idaho Freedom Foundation publishes IdahoReporter.com.