Amid a torrent of campaign spending, a divided Supreme Court on Monday declined to take another look at a controversial 2010 ruling that...

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WASHINGTON — Amid a torrent of campaign spending, a divided Supreme Court on Monday declined to take another look at a controversial 2010 ruling that helped open the political floodgates.

The court’s decision means the increasingly secretive world of campaign contributions and the unforeseen consequences of the case known as Citizens United will remain intact for the foreseeable future. The decision also exposed a sharp split on the court, where four of the nine justices voiced unhappiness about the current role of money in politics.

“Considerable experience 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,” Justice Stephen Breyer wrote on behalf of the four justices who wanted to revisit the 2010 case.

In its 5-4 ruling two years ago, the court declared that restrictions on independent expenditures violated the First Amendment’s free-speech protections. The ruling meant corporations and unions could spend unlimited amounts on ads designed to help or hurt a candidate; the ruling, however, did not change the rules governing contributions made directly to candidates.

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That ruling, along with related campaign-finance decisions, has enabled political operatives to raise and spend record sums. Groups such as American Crossroads have been pumping big bucks into Republican efforts, while Democrats have formed groups with names such as Priorities USA.

The outside spending by nonparty groups already has exceeded $160 million. The largest group so far, a so-called “super PAC” called Restore our Future, has spent more than $53 million in support of GOP presidential candidate Mitt Romney.

Though not all of the enhanced fundraising stems directly from the Citizens United ruling, the case has become shorthand for unfettered campaign donations and spending.

The silver lining, advocates of campaign-finance limits hope, is that the return of big money into the system will trigger a public backlash.

“By the time this election is over, the country is going to look at the campaign-finance system we have and think it is corrupt and insane,” said Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21. “And this is going to create major new opportunities for reform. When the country demands change, elected officials tend to pay attention.”

Yet the court’s ruling Monday makes it that much harder to curtail Citizens United, in part because the decision affirmed the idea that independent expenditures are not corrupting. Without a change in the makeup of the court, overturning the decision would require a constitutional amendment, no small feat.

In the meantime, campaign-finance reformers find themselves fending off challenges to remaining laws, particularly disclosure rules now being assailed by conservatives.

“There’s not much more that campaign-finance reformers can do other than to try to make disclosure as firm as possible, maintain reasonable campaign contribution limits and do whatever we can to keep money out of judicial elections,” said Jamie Raskin, an American University law professor and Democratic state senator from Maryland who co-sponsored a state disclosure law in the wake of Citizens United.

The potential opportunity to revisit Citizens United arose because last year, in an extraordinary challenge to the high court’s authority, the Montana Supreme Court upheld a long-standing state law that banned corporate spending on elections. The state ban dates to 1912, when it was imposed to counteract the clout of Montana’s powerful copper industry. The state ruling essentially dismissed the U.S. Supreme Court’s commands, something the justices frown upon.

“Unlike Citizens United, this case concerns Montana law, Montana elections and it arises from Montana history,” the Montana Supreme Court insisted.

California, Idaho, Washington and 19 other states had joined in a friend-of-the-court brief siding with Montana.

“Contributors who want to give enough money to buy candidates now have an obvious place to turn: ‘outside’ groups with a publicly stated intent to pour massive sums into supporting those candidates,” former Solicitor General Seth Waxman wrote in a legal brief urging the court to take the case.

But because the Montana court’s decision directly flouted the Supreme Court’s ruling, some advocates urged the high court to summarily overturn it without the need for a full hearing.

On Monday, in its unsigned decision, the Supreme Court agreed and reversed the Montana court’s actions. Breyer and the four dissenting justices agreed the Montana court was in the wrong but still wanted the case heard fully to set the stage for winding back at least some of the Citizens United ruling.

The court’s decision to stick with Citizens United prompted criticism from congressional Democrats, some of whom are themselves formidable fundraisers, while Citizens United President David Bossie called it “another win for the First Amendment.”

Information from the Tribune Washington bureau is include

in this report.

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