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High court affirms corporations' right to political spending

Updated at 2:00 pm ET The Supreme Court overturned Monday a Montana state law which banned independent political spending by corporations.

By reversing a ruling by the Montana Supreme Court which had upheld the 1912 law, the high court re-affirmed its own 2010 Citizens United decision which held that a ban on corporate independent political spending was unconstitutional under the First Amendment.

Monday’s ruling dashed the hopes of campaign finance reformers who wanted the justices to reconsider Citizens United.

“There can be no serious doubt” that the Citizens United decision applies to the Montana state law, the majority wrote in an unsigned opinion.

Dissenting from that reversal of the Montana court were four justices: Stephen Breyer, Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor, and Elena Kagan.

“Montana’s experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the Court’s decision in Citizens United, casts grave doubt on the Court’s supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so,” Breyer wrote for the dissenters.

Reaction from Democrats to Monday’s ruling was a mixture of frustration and anger.

Rep. Ted Deutch, D- Fla., who has proposed an amendment to the Constitution that would prohibit spending by corporations in elections, said that the high court had "doubled down on the dangerous assertion made in Citizens United that corporations are people with a constitutional right to spend unchecked amounts of money influencing our elections. By striking down Montana's long-held ban on corporate campaign contributions, this radical decision undermines good government laws nationwide and further jeopardizes century-old federal law banning direct corporate giving to campaigns."

But the legislative path to enactment of a constitutional amendment is extremely arduous; in the short term there seems no chance for legislation to counter the Supreme Court’s rulings in Citizens United and in Monday’s Montana case.

Summary reversal of the Montana court – which is what the Supreme Court did on Monday -- is the quickest and most emphatic way for the justices to tell a lower court that it got something wrong (i.e., that it had ignored or misinterpreted a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court).

In its ruling in 2011, the Montana Supreme Court affirmed the state’s right to impose its own ban on independent spending by corporations. The Montana court said, “Unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history.”

The Montana court also said, “Issues of corporate influence, sparse population, dependence upon agriculture and extractive resource development, location as a transportation corridor, and low campaign costs make Montana especially vulnerable to continued efforts of corporate control to the detriment of democracy and the republican form of government. Clearly Montana has unique and compelling interests to protect through preservation of this statute."

But the corporations challenging the Montana law said that state laws which ban independent political spending by corporations are in conflict with the Citizens United decision and must be struck down

The challengers said in their petition to the justices: “The Montana Supreme Court simply disagreed with the holdings of Citizens United, which it felt justified in disregarding…But only this Court can overturn its own precedent ….”