Among the several momentous rulings by the U.S. Supreme Court this week was the conservative majority reaffirming one of the worst decisions in the court's history - its 2010 ruling in the Citizens United case. While expected, the 5-4 ruling was still disappointing.
By a 5-2 vote about a year earlier, the Montana Supreme Court had defied the nation's highest court. Confronted with the Citizens ruling, which concluded that the First Amendment free speech protection prohibits limits on political spending by corporations, unions and other special interest groups, the Montana court refused to toss out that state's restrictions on such spending.
The Montana law that the state's Supreme Court upheld did contradict the Citizens ruling. On the books for a century, it banned political expenditures by corporations, and for good reason. So-called "Copper Kings" once controlled elected officials in Montana, their money and influence assuring politicians did the bidding of the mining industry.
The fact that the Montana court is right and the Supreme Court wrong unfortunately means nothing; The Supremes, and more precisely the five conservative justices, have the final say. We still fail to grasp the concept that bloodless, ageless, soulless corporations and other groups have the same God-given inalienable rights as humans. And we don't see the high court's justification for tossing out a century of precedent allowing restrictions on corporate spending in elections.
The conservative five had two choices, either slap down the Montana Supreme Court for defying their ruling or use the challenge as an opportunity to reconsider their own decision. They chose the former and Montana will no longer be able to control the corruptive influence of big corporate money in their state elections.
The underlying message is that the nation has to learn to live with the Citizens United precedent, at least until the current makeup of the court changes.
One course of action is for flesh and blood citizens to become better informed and so not so easily influenced by the slick political attack ads that distort and cherry-pick information to tear down a candidate or a cause.
Secondly, Congress and state legislatures can pass tough campaign spending disclosure laws. There is nothing in the Citizens ruling that prohibits laws that require honest disclosure of who is behind political smear campaigns and who the donors are, so at least voters can assess motives.
The Democratic majority in the Connecticut General Assembly is trying to work with the Democratic governor, Dannel P. Malloy, to do just that. Regrettably, a disclosure bill passed by the legislature defined independent expenditure so broadly that it would have applied to almost any communication involving a public office within 90 days of an election, such as expenditures for candidate debates. Gov. Malloy made the right decision to veto the law.
Now the sticking point is Gov. Malloy's request to boost funding for publically financed candidates for governor. Mr. Malloy was the first candidate elected governor in state history who accepted no special interest money, exclusively using public financing. But he contends the $6 million cap is not enough. His 2010 opponent, Tom Foley, spent $12.7 million. An earlier version of the bill boosted the public financing grant to $2.5 million for a primary, $9 million for a general election.
Whether to boost election grants can await a debate in the next session. The governor should seek agreement with the legislative leadership to pass a tough disclosure bill in Monday's trailer session.
Even short of that Connecticut, with public financing of campaigns, is in better shape than much of the country. Given the partisan divide, a disclosure bill coming out of Washington appears unlikely. So far this year, groups that do not disclose donors have reported almost $12.4 million in political spending to the Federal Election Commission, much of it made by possible by the Citizens United decision, reports the watchdog group Sunlight Foundation. To date the largest independent expenditure groups not disclosing donors, most nonprofits organized under Section 501(C) of the tax code, lean left - including groups associated with Planned Parenthood and AFL-CIO.
But that spending is but a small part of the growing "dark money." It does not include tens of millions of dollars of super PAC (Political Action Committee) contributions or donations by shell corporations whose owners cannot be traced, reports the Sunlight group.
Our democracy is for sale, the least the public should demand is to know who is trying to buy it.