BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A state judge has struck down as unconstitutional provisions in a 2012 ballot initiative that directed Montana elected officials to support limits on corporate campaign contributions.
The ruling came in a lawsuit filed last year against I-166, an initiative that declared corporations aren't people and money isn't political speech. Montana voters approved the measure by a margin of more than 2 to 1.
District Judge Kathy Seeley in Helena let stand the initiative's broader declaration that corporations don't have constitutional rights to free speech.
But in a Friday order, Seeley wrote that the initiative would improperly bind elected officials by requiring them to vote a certain way on corporate campaign finance issues. She said that violated the powers given to Congress and state legislators by the U.S. Constitution.
She said that under state law, it would have been a misdemeanor violation to go against the directives included in the initiative — a potential outcome that Seeley said "cannot be ignored."
"The initiative language dictates the action required and the votes to be cast" by elected officials, Seeley said. "In essence, therefore, it predetermines actions and takes from public officials the freedom to vote as they see fit. Those constraints, as well as the criminal liability for violation of the provisions, are not insignificant."
The initiative directed Montana's congressional delegation to pursue a constitutional amendment undoing aspects of the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision. The state Legislature was charged with ratifying such an amendment if it were passed by Congress.
The Citizens United ruling, in part, declared as unconstitutional some federal restrictions on spending by corporations and unions in elections. The high court in a subsequent decision said its ruling also nullified a separate Montana ban on corporate money, which was passed by voters in 1912.
An attorney for the people who brought the lawsuit said Seeley's order, in effect, "takes the teeth out" of Montana's 2012 initiative. The lawsuit was brought by Geoff Goble of Big Timber and Marie Rickert of Lewistown.
"We essentially got the ruling we were looking for," said James Brown, the plaintiffs' attorney. "It just renders I-166 completely meaningless."
A spokesman for Montana Attorney General Tim Fox declined to comment on the implications of the ruling and didn't say if an appeal was planned.
"We received the ruling just today and are currently reviewing it," spokesman John Barnes said.
The office of Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, who was named as the lead defendant in the case, referred questions to Fox's office.
Critics of the initiative had attempted to get it removed from the ballot before last year's election, but their efforts were blocked by a 5-1 ruling from the Montana Supreme Court.