Wednesday, September 25, 2002
Appeals Court Upholds Montana’s Campaign Spending Limits
By a MetNews Staff Writer
A Montana initiative that imposes strict limits on campaign contributions, including an aggregate limit on political action committee donations, was upheld yesterday by the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.
A divided panel said the challenged features of Initiative 118, enacted in 1994, do not violate the First Amendment because they serve the state’s legitimate interests in preventing corruption and the appearance of corruption.
The ruling was a defeat for the Montana Right to Life Association and its Political Action Committee, who had won an earlier ruling by Senior U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom of the District of Montana that other provisions of the initiative were unconstitutional. The judge, after a four-day bench trial, said the state had proven that its interests outweighed any incidental restriction on speech resulting from the contribution limits.
The state did not appeal the earlier ruling.
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.
I-118 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, writing for the Ninth Circuit, said the initiative passes muster under Nixon v. Shrink Missouri Gov’t PAC, 528 U.S. 377 (2000), which upheld contribution limits of $1,075 or less for state and local offices.
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 meets 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 was 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.
He noted that 90 percent of all contributions to Montana candidates have historically been within the limits of the initiative. And he pointed out that in 1998, with the limits in effect, the average house candidate raised more than $4,000 and the average Senate candidate nearly $7,000, which the judge said was a reasonable sum to campaign in Montana.
The aggregate PAC limits, he went on to say, do not unconstitutionally discriminate.
The judge cited a 1981 incident, widely reported in the state, in which a Republican legislator sent a letter to his colleagues reminding them of the insurance industry PAC’s strong support for the party’s candidates. The letter, which urged recipients to destroy their copies after reading them, was sent out just before a vote on a measure strongly supported by the industry.
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, he 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.
The case is Montana Right to Life Association v. Eddleman, 00-35924.
Copyright 2002, Metropolitan News Company