Wednesday, October 17, 2012
Ninth Circuit Again Stays Order Striking Down Montana Contribution Limits
From Staff and Wire Service Reports
The Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals late yesterday stayed a district judge’s order striking down Montana’s limits on campaign contributions, the second time in a week it had done so.
The ruling leaves the current limits in place through at least through the Nov. 6 general election.
The state asked for the second stay after U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of the District of Montana issued a 38-page decision last Wednesday, declaring the limits unconstitutional. Lovell issued his findings and order—which would have abruptly shifted the state’s contribution scheme from one of tight limits to one with no limits at all, three weeks before the general election—after the Ninth Circuit stayed his previous injunction, saying he had made no findings to support it.
Judge Jay Bybee, writing for the motions panel, suggested the state ultimately has a strong case on the merits. He cited Mont. Right to Life Ass’n v. Eddleman, 343 F.3d 1085 (9th Cir. 2003), which upheld the present law after it was first enacted.
At the time, the law set limits of $500 per election to a candidate for governor, $250 for other statewide offices, and $130 for lesser offices. With automatic adjustments for inflation, those limits are now $630, $310, and $160 respectively. The law also limits aggregate donations from political parties.
Eddleman is still the controlling law on the issue, Bybee said.
The plaintiffs—a combination of individuals, conservative political action committees, and county Republican central committees, argued the limits were too low to allow effective campaigning. That argument was rejected in Eddleman, but the plaintiffs unsuccessfully argued that Eddleman is no longer authoritative in light of subsequent U.S. Supreme Court decisions.
Not only is the state likely to succeed on the merits of its appeal, Bybee said, but the timing of the district judge’s order jeopardizes the fairness of the coming election and could cause irreparable harm to the public’s interest “in the stability of its electoral system.”
Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock, himself a candidate for governor and a strong advocate of restrictive campaign finance laws, lauded the appeals court intervention.
“The court has said that Montana’s campaign contribution limits will stay in effect for this election. That is an important victory for all Montanans, regardless of party affiliation,” Bullock said. “Montanans put a high value on the integrity and fairness of our election system, and the court has allowed us to maintain our citizen democracy, rather than putting our elections up for auction to the highest bidder.”
Conservative groups emboldened by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision have made Montana the center of the fight over many campaign finance restrictions.
The groups, led by the Washington D.C.-based American Tradition Partnership, previously convinced Lovell, of Helena, to strike other laws, such as a ban on knowingly false statements in certain advertisements.
The U.S. Supreme Court also tossed the state’s century-old, voter-approved ban on independent corporate political spending in state races, after the state Supreme Court upheld it on the ground it was needed to fight the types of corruption that caused the state to impose the ban in the first place.
That decision prompted a new ballot initiative that would direct state leaders to seek a constitutional amendment undermining the high court’s decision.
The attorney general’s office argues that American Tradition Partnership is a shadowy group which is illegally trying to conceal its political spending, perhaps with money received from foreign corporations. The state is seeking sanctions against the conservative group in a separate court case.
The case ruled on yesterday is Lair v. Bullock, 12-35809.
Copyright 2012, Metropolitan News Company