The Montana Supreme Court won praise for its recitation of history in its recent corporate finance case, Western Tradition Partnership v. Attorney General (later called American Tradition Partnership v. Bulloch).
But that was before anyone bothered to check the court’s version of history.
Earlier this year, five of the seven state justices held that Montana’s “unique” history of corporate electoral corruption and domination gave Montana government the “compelling governmental interest” needed to abridge First Amendment rights—a compelling interest not present in other states. The justices therefore refused to apply the U.S. Supreme Court’sCitizens United decision, which normally protects the right of associations to campaign independently for and against candidates. Instead, the Montana court upheld a state statute censoring corporate campaign speech.
But neither the U.S. Supreme Court nor anyone else seem to have questioned the Montana tribunal’s historical claims. A large portion of my professional work is as a legal historian. Earlier this year, I undertook an extensive library fact-check of the court’s claims. I summarized some (although not all) of my conclusions in a published paper. What I learned was that, in the phrase of one writer who reviewed my findings, the Montana Supreme Court had been guilty of promulgating “junk history.”
Here’s a quick summary of my principal findings—some previously unpublished:
First, while claiming that incidents of corporate campaign corruption were once widespread in Montana, the court cited only two events, both over 100 years old. Both turn out to be irrelevant to the claim that Montana has a unique history of corporate electoral corruption. One was the alleged bribery of a pair of district court judges, which had absolutely nothing to do with campaigns or elections. The incident was never proved, and it’s not even clear that corporate money was involved.
The other was a candidate’s bribery of state legislators in a 1899 (!) U.S. Senate election. The U.S. Senate committee report on the incident described only bribery by individuals, not by corporations. The episode did not involve independent expenditures and was not unique to Montana, since similar episodes throughout the country soon led to adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment.Details