A federal judge Wednesday struck down Montana’s dollar limits on campaign contributions to state candidates, dealing another blow to long-standing state laws that attempt to limit money in politics.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, of Helena, in a brief order, said the nearly 20-year-old limits violate free speech rights under the First Amendment of the Constitution, because they prevent candidates “from amassing the resources necessary for effective campaign advocacy.”
Lovell permanently blocked the state from enforcing its contribution limits, apparently opening the door for individuals, political parties and political action committees to give unlimited amounts of money to candidates running for Montana office this election season.
However, state Attorney General Steve Bullock — who’s also running for governor this year — said his office will ask for an emergency stay of Lovell’s ruling while it appeals the order to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
“This is a destructive ruling for Montana’s citizen democracy, and disturbing for those of us who believe that democracy is not for sale and politics is about values and issues, not money,” said Bullock, a Democrat.
James Brown, a Dillon attorney for the coalition of individuals and business and political and Republican Party groups that sued to overturn the limits, called the ruling “a complete victory for my clients on the contribution limits.”
“We argued … that Montana’s admittedly low contributions limits prevent candidates from effectively conducting campaigns, and the court agreed,” Brown said.
The stricken limits say individuals and PACs could give no more than $630 each to a gubernatorial candidate, $310 to candidates for other statewide offices, such as attorney general or state auditor, and $160 to district or local candidates, such as those running for state Senate or school board.
The ruling also struck down limits on aggregate amounts that all political party groups or all PACs could give to a single candidate.
The ruling is another victory for a loose coalition of business and Republican groups that have challenged numerous Montana campaign-finance laws.
A leader of the coalition is American Tradition Partnership, whose earlier lawsuit led to the voiding this year of Montana’s 100-year-old law banning corporations from making independent expenditures promoting or opposing Montana candidates.
ATP calls itself a “grassroots organization dedicated to fighting the radical environmentalist agenda,” and has spent money on mailers and other campaign material blasting Montana candidates it says favor that agenda. ATP does not publicly disclose its donors.
Doug Lair, Montana director of ATP and a plaintiff in the lawsuit challenging the limits, said the limits “make it virtually impossible for a citizen to defeat an entrenched incumbent, which is why politicians love contributions limits.”
“The First Amendment is clear,” he said. “The political establishment can’t tell citizens to shut up because they’ve reached their speech limit.”
Brown, the attorney for ATP and the other plaintiffs, said they’ve never argued that the individual and PAC contribution limits should be abolished entirely. Instead, they want the Montana Legislature to set the limits higher, and preferably no lower than $1,000, he said.
If Lovell’s ruling stands, the 2013 Montana Legislature could set new limits — or set no limits at all.
Jonathan Motl, a Helena attorney who wrote the 1994 voter initiative that created some of the limits struck down Wednesday, said the limits were designed to give smaller donors more power in the political process.
“It’s a sad day, because it takes political power away from the average Montanan,” he said.
Lovell said he issued the order quickly so it could apply to the current election, and that he’ll issue a more complete ruling later, fully explaining his reasoning.