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Senators Urge Supreme Court to Uphold Law Banning Corporate Donations

Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call File Photo

Updated 6:17 p.m.

A stream of amicus briefs to the Supreme Court on a closely watched political spending case turned to a flood by the end the week, as Members of Congress, attorneys general and advocacy groups weighed in.

The big surprise was a bipartisan brief from Sens. John McCain (R-Ariz.) and Sheldon Whitehouse (D-R.I.) urging justices to let stand a Montana law that bans corporate political expenditures. The court is weighing whether to take up a constitutional challenge to the law, and today marked the deadline for friend of the court briefs in that decision.

“Evidence from the 2010 and 2012 electoral cycles has demonstrated that so-called independent expenditures create a strong potential for corruption and the perception thereof,” the two Senators wrote in their brief. “The news confirms daily that existing campaign finance rules purporting to provide for ‘independence’ and ‘disclosure’ in fact provide neither.”

Four House Democrats also weighed in with a brief: Reps. Robert Brady (Pa.), Charlie Gonzalez (Texas), Zoe Lofgren (Calif.) and Chris Van Hollen (Md.), who has authored the House version of a campaign finance disclosure bill. The case is Western Tradition Partnership v. Montana.

“This case is a chance for the court to clean up some of the mess it made in Citizens United,” Brady, ranking member of the House Administration Committee, said in a statement, referring to the high court’s 2010 ruling to deregulate political spending. “Since that decision, we’ve seen the effect of unlimited, secret contributions, and it is nothing like the majority opinion envisioned.”

Briefs have also come into the court from the groups challenging the Montana law and their allies, including Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.).

“The ruling of the Montana Supreme Court is in direct contravention of this Court’s ruling in Citizens United,” McConnell wrote in a brief filed last month. “Nothing that has occurred since that ruling warrants its reconsideration. In fact, the central concerns expressed by those members of this court who dissented in Citizens United or joined earlier opinions sustaining campaign finance laws that limited speech have not been borne out by events of the past two years.”

The unusual number of amicus briefs reflect intense public interest in the Citizens United ruling and the unrestricted spending it has triggered, said Adam Skaggs, senior counsel at the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University’s School of Law.

“It’s pretty significant to have that many folks weighing in at this petition stage,” Skaggs said. “And I think it just underscores the significance of the Citizens United case, and the broad, widespread concern about that case for elections and democracy.”

Montana was one of several states whose prohibitions on corporate spending were technically nullified by the Citizens United ruling.

But state officials refused to take their law off the books on the grounds that the state has a special history of corporate campaign finance abuses, effectively inviting a legal challenge.

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