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Profile: James C. Nelson
James C. Nelson was a participant or observer in the following events:
The Montana Supreme Court rules 5-2 in the case of Western Tradition Partnership v. Bullock that a century-old law prohibits corporate spending in state and federal elections conducted within the state. The ruling seems to challenge the US Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling (see January 21, 2010). The case stems from a challenge by a “social welfare organization,” Western Tradition Partnership (WTP, which changed its name to American Tradition Partnership after the original lawsuit was filed), joined by two other corporate entities, to Montana’s 1912 Corrupt Practices Act (CPA). The law banned corporate spending in elections, after two out-of-state copper industry magnates attempted to “buy” the Montana legislature by pouring money into the 1894 state elections. The law declares that “corporations may not make… an expenditure in connection with a candidate or a political committee that supports or opposes a candidate or a political party.” The Montana Supreme Court finds that the CPA is needed to ensure the integrity of Montana’s elections, and to make sure that citizens and not corporations are running the state. However, the Court acknowledges that its ruling conflicts with the Citizens United decision, though it says that the Citizens United decision allows for restrictions on corporate political speech if the government can demonstrate that the restrictions are as minimal as possible to achieve a compelling governmental interest. The Montana Court rules that because of Montana’s history of corporate vote-buying and the narrow restrictions of the CPA, the law should stand. It also notes that Western Tradition Partnership argued in its original suit that disclosure laws, as opposed to outright bans, would serve the public interest and guard against corruption; however, the organization is currently involved in another lawsuit in which it argues that those same disclosure laws are unconstitutional restrictions of the freedom of speech. [Western Tradition Partnership v. Bullock et al, 12/30/2011 ; Los Angeles Times, 1/4/2012; Reuters, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 6/25/2012; Washington Post, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 7/10/2012] Even one of the dissenters, Justice James C. Nelson, disagrees with the Citizens United characterizations that corporations are legally people, writing: “Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people—human beings—to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency, and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons.” WTP’s director Donald Ferguson says after the decision that the case hinges on freedom of speech (see January 21, 2010): “The current state law says that if you own a business and you would like to use the resources of the business to speak out about how you see the law, you essentially have to ask prior permission from the state. Under the current regime, the state regulatory agencies and the newspapers basically have a monopoly on information. We’re simply trying to put more free speech in motion.” [Los Angeles Times, 1/4/2012; Huffington Post, 1/4/2012]
Legal Scholars Anticipate Montana Ruling to be Overturned - Paul Ryan of the Campaign Legal Center calls the Montana high court’s ruling “an antidote to the crabbed view of corruption” displayed in Citizens United. Ryan, like many others, anticipates the US Supreme Court will overturn today’s ruling. [Huffington Post, 1/4/2012] One of those others is law professor Richard Hasen, who writes: “[I]f the Court were being honest in Citizens United, it would have said something like: ‘We don’t care whether or not independent spending can or cannot corrupt; the First Amendment trumps this risk of corruption.’ But the Court didn’t say that, because it would have faced even greater criticism than it already has. So it dressed up its value judgment (no corruption ‘implied in law’) as a factual statement. The Montana Supreme Court called SCOTUS [the US Supreme Court] on this. And when SCOTUS reverses, the disingenuousness of this aspect of CU will be on full display for all.” Hasen is referring to the Court’s finding in Citizens United that independent spending in elections does not legally imply corruption. [Rick Hasen, 1/1/2012]
Appeal to Supreme Court - Attorneys for WTP and the other corporate plaintiffs will appeal to the US Supreme Court on the grounds that Montana is bound by the Citizens United decision and that the decision applies to state as well as federal elections. Attorney James Bopp, in filing the appeal, will say: “If Montana can ban core political speech because of Montana’s unique characteristics, free speech will be seriously harmed. Speakers will be silenced because of corruption by others over a century ago.” The US Supreme Court will quickly issue a stay of that decision. [Reuters, 6/25/2012; OMB Watch, 6/25/2012] When the case reaches the US Supreme Court, the name of the plaintiff will change into “American Tradition Partnership,” and the Court’s documentation will reflect that change. The Court will overrule the Montana decision (see June 25, 2012). After the decision, American Tradition Partnership’s Web site will disappear, but the liberal accountability organization SourceWatch will describe the organization’s parent, the American Tradition Institute, as described in the group’s mission statement: “a public policy research and educational foundation… founded in 2009 to help lead the national discussion about environmental issues, including air and water quality and regulation, responsible land use, natural resource management, energy development, property rights, and free-market principles of stewardship.” ATI and its affiliates are pro-development and against expanded environmental regulation, according to SourceWatch’s documentation, made up of “a broader network of groups with close ties to energy interests that have long fought greenhouse gas regulation.” [SourceWatch, 2012]
Entity Tags: American Tradition Institute, American Tradition Partnership, Donald Ferguson, James C. Nelson, 1912 Corrupt Practices Act (Montana), SourceWatch, US Supreme Court, Paul S. Ryan, Montana Supreme Court, James Bopp, Jr, Richard L. Hasen
Timeline Tags: Civil Liberties
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