By Jocelyn Benson
States seeking to fight the corrupting influence of money in politics should be able to restrict corporate spending on campaign ads.
It's a simple proposition that states' rights enthusiasts everywhere should embrace. And it's become the subject of a major battle in the U.S. Supreme Court.
That court said, in Citizens United, that corporations have a right to spend unlimited amounts of money to influence the political process. But a few months ago, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a state law that regulates corporate money in state campaigns, based on specific evidence that the law was needed to curb corruption in the political system.
And on Monday, attorneys general in 22 states joined U.S. Sen. John McCain and the Montana attorney general in filing a brief before the U.S. Supreme Court, arguing that states seeking to fight political corruption should be able to ban corporate campaign spending.
Missing from the list of 22 states? Michigan.
Michigan citizens should demand that Attorney General Bill Schuette join with our neighbors in Iowa, Illinois, and elsewhere and support Montana's effort to protect its citizens from political corruption.
The Montana decision was based on evidence that Montana's government was once so beholden to the influence of corporate "Copper Barons" that elected officials were "operating under a mere shell of legal authority."
This evidence of corruption justified the law, which allows individuals to give to a corporate "PAC" to represent the corporation's interests, but does not allow the corporation to spend its profits directly on political ads.
A state law that restricts corporate money in politics might seem contrary to the Supreme Court's Citizens United holding that corporations are "people" and, like people, have a constitutional right to participate in politics — and spend money to influence elections.
But that case rested on the conclusion that corporate spending in politics did not lead to corruption. So when a state produces evidence to the contrary, and its courts find that such spending did, indeed, lead to government corruption, shouldn't it be able to enact measures that will limit that spending?
In light of the millions of dollars pouring into Michigan and other states through Super PACs seeking to influence our politicians, I think so. And our Attorney General Bill Schuette should agree. Schuette should join his colleagues in 22 other states in asking the U.S. Supreme Court to preserve states' ability to restrict corporate political spending.
About the author: Jocelyn Benson is an associate professor of law at Wayne State University Law School, and is the director of the Michigan Center for Election Law. She was also a candidate for Michigan Secretary of State in 2010.
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