Friday, January 10, 2003
Ruling Upholding Campaign Spending Limits Withdrawn
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling that upheld a Montana initiative imposing strict limits on campaign contributions, including an aggregate limit on political action committee donations, was withdrawn yesterday by the panel.
In a brief order, the judges declared that their Sept. 24 opinion in Montana Right to Life Association v. Eddleman, 306 F.3d 874 (9th Cir. 2002), is no longer citable as precedent.
In a separate order, the court directed attorneys to brief the impact of a case now pending before the U.S. Supreme Court, Beaumont v. Federal Elections Commission. The high court recently voted to review Beaumont, in which the Fourth Circuit struck down two features of the Federal Election Campaigns Act—the ban on corporate contributions and the ban on independent expenditures by corporations—as applied to nonprofit advocacy groups.
The Ninth Circuit panel asked whether it should delay the filing of a new opinion in the Montana case until after the high court decides Beaumont.
Last September, the divided panel had upheld two challenged features of Montana’s 1994 Initiative 118—a reduction in campaign contribution limits and an aggregate limit on the amount a candidate can accept from political action committees. The majority said those features do not violate the First Amendment because they serve the state’s legitimate interests in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.
That ruling had been a defeat for the Montana Right to Life Association and its PAC. Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of the District of Montana held after a four-day bench trial that the state had proven that its interests outweighed any incidental restriction on speech resulting from the contribution limits.
The right-to-life groups raised some of the same issues that have emerged in suits challenging the federal McCain-Feingold legislation. The case was argued in both the district and appellate courts by James Bopp Jr., a Terre Haute, Ind. lawyer, long associated with the anti-abortion movement, who represents a number of plaintiffs in the federal suits and who argued Beaumont in the Fourth Circuit.
Bopp yesterday called the withdrawal of the opinion, which occurred after the state had responded to his petition for rehearing, “extremely unusual” and “good news.
The order means that “a substantial change in the court’s decision is being considered,” he told the MetNews. “We’re very pleased.”
Montana’s chief appellate advocate, state Solicitor Brian Morris, could not be reached for comment.
Montana’s law limits individual and PAC contributions to $400 per election to a candidate for governor, $200 to a candidate for another statewide office, and $100 to a candidate for an office that is voted on by less than the entire state. The state’s previous limits varied from $250 for candidates for the state House of Representatives to $1,500.
While reducing individual contribution limits, the initiative increased the amounts that a political party can give to its nominees, ranging from $500 for a state house seat to $15,000 in the contest for governor.
In addition, the initiative limited a candidate for the state House of Representatives to a total of $600 from PACs, and a Senate candidate to $1,000, although those amounts have doubled due to an inflation adjustment built into the measure.
Unlike McCain-Feingold, I-118 places no limitations on independent expenditures or “issues” advertising, nor on the amount that an individual or PAC may contribute to a political party.
Judge Barry G. Silverman, in his now-withdrawn opinion for the Ninth Circuit, said the initiative passes muster under Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Gov’t PAC, 528 U.S. 377 (2000), which upheld a $1,075 limit on contributions to state and local candidates.
Under that ruling, Silverman explained, a campaign contributions measure is valid if it is “narrowly drawn” to vindicate the public interest, leaves individuals free to support the candidates of their choice, and allows the candidate to amass sufficient resources to wage an effective campaign.
The evidence presented to Shanstrom, the appellate jurist wrote, supports his conclusion that I-118 passes constitutional muster under the Nixon standards.
Silverman cited evidence that prior to the passage of the initiative, there was a widespread belief among Montanans that elected officials gave special treatment to large contributors.
The measure is not overly intrusive, he concluded. Individuals who wish to participate in politics may still do so by contributing to candidates within the limits, or by giving to political parties, and candidates can still raise enough money to run effective campaigns, he said.
Senior Judge Arthur L. Alarcon concurred in Silverman’s opinion, but visiting District Judge James A. Teilborg of the District of Arizona dissented with respect to the PAC limitation.
The state, Teilborg argued, “failed to demonstrate a serious threat of influence by all PACs in Montana to justify the aggregate limit.” There was no evidence that PAC abuse was rampant in the state, he said, adding that even if it was, I-118 was unlikely to cure it, since PACs could still give unlimited sums to political parties.
Copyright 2003, Metropolitan News Company