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The Supreme Court in Washington

The Supreme Court in Washington, D.C.

The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday left in place Montana's voter-approved limits on contributions to political campaigns in state elections, a decision that likely ends a legal challenge that lasted more than seven years and disrupted the 2012 governor's race.

The justices rejected an appeal from opponents of contribution limits, who argued that the caps on political donations are an unconstitutional limit on free speech and free association, and prevent candidates from running effective campaigns.

In declining to take up the case, the high court upheld the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals' ruling that the limits are a reasonable way to try to prevent corruption and still allow candidates to raise enough money to run campaigns.

It also appears to bring to a close a lawsuit filed in Montana in 2011 after the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in federal elections.

"This decision is a big deal," Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock said. "I've never heard any Montanan say we need more money in politics and I'm glad to see the Supreme Court for once agrees."

Anita Milanovich, an attorney for the plaintiffs who challenged the contribution limits, did not return phone and email messages seeking comment.

Montana law caps contributions from individuals and political action committees to gubernatorial candidates at $1,320 while political parties are allowed to donate $47,700 per candidate. The limits were created by a 1994 ballot initiative, and they are adjusted for inflation.

Since the lawsuit was filed in 2011, a federal judge has ruled twice that those limits are unconstitutional, only to be reversed upon appeal.

The first time, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ordered the limits lifted just weeks before the 2012 gubernatorial election between Bullock and Republican Rick Hill.

After the ruling, but before the 9th Circuit reinstated the limits days later, Hill received a $500,000 donation that prompted a lawsuit and led to the election's final weeks being played out in a courtroom.

The appeals court ruled in 2015 that the Citizens United decision means Montana's contribution limits must be stopping actual corruption, such as bribery, or the appearance of corruption, in order to be constitutional.

That is a stricter standard than the previous requirement that states must only show that their contribution limits aim to curb the influence of big money.

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Using that 9th Circuit ruling, Lovell once again ruled that Montana's contribution's limits were unconstitutional, less than a month before the 2016 primary elections. This time, however, Lovell kept the limits in place while the state challenged his order.

The 9th Circuit once again overturned Lovell, saying that Montana's limits are justified in trying to prevent corruption. That is the ruling the plaintiffs represented by Milanovich unsuccessfully petitioned the U.S. Supreme Court to review.

"Montana secured a victory today for transparency and accountability in our government and elected officials," said Jaime McNaughton, attorney for the Montana Office of the Commissioner of Political Practices, which oversees state campaign laws.

Montana's base limits for individual and political committee candidates are:

  • $680 for governor/lieutenant governor
  • $340 for all other statewide offices
  • $180 for all other candidates

The aggregate limits for candidate contributes for all political party entities are:

  • $24,500 for governor/lieutenant governor
  • $8,850 for other statewide offices
  • $3,550 for Public Service Commission
  • $1,450 for state Senate
  • $900 all other candidates.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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