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Eye On Boise

Federal appeals court upholds Montana’s campaign contribution limits

Montana’s campaign contribution limits, which had been overturned by a federal judge in May of 2016, are justified, the 9th Circuit U.S. Court of Appeals ruled today. Montana Gov. Steve Bullock welcomed the ruling, saying the lawsuit “sought to open the floodgates of money in Montana elections by making it easier for out-of-state corporations to buy officeholders,” adding, “I'm glad the federal courts upheld Montana's limits on money in elections.”

The Montana case came up last week as an interim working group of Idaho lawmakers considered whether to do away with Idaho’s limits; the 10-member bipartisan panel unanimously rejected the idea. Here’s a full report from the Associated Press:

By Amy Beth Hanson, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana's limits on direct contributions to political campaigns are justified in trying to prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption while still allowing candidates to raise enough money to run a campaign, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday.

The decision overturned a ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, who in May 2016 said the limits enacted by voters in 1994 restricted political speech.

"This lawsuit ... sought to open the floodgates of money in Montana elections by making it easier for out-of-state corporations to buy officeholders," Gov. Steve Bullock said in a statement. "I'm glad the federal courts upheld Montana's limits on money in elections.

"For a century in Montana, winning an election for state office has meant going door to door and meeting face to face with everyday voters: democracy at its best. Today, we're one step closer to keeping it that way. Elections should be decided by 'we the people' — not by corporations, millionaires, or wealthy special interests buying more television ads," he said.

Two members of the three-judge panel that heard Montana's appeal said the state presented adequate evidence of attempts to purchase legislative action with campaign contributions. Judge Carlos Bea dissented, arguing there was no proof Montana lawmakers acted on those attempts.

The majority said the state wasn't required to prove actual corruption.

Judges Raymond Fisher and Mary Murguia said Montana's limits "target those contributions most likely to result in actual or perceived quid pro quo corruption — high-end, direct contributions with a significant impact on candidate fundraising."

The decision notes that would-be contributors are still free to volunteer their services, make donations to a candidate's political party, send out direct mail or run other independent advertising. It also argues the limits do not favor incumbents or curtail the influence of political parties.

Attorneys Jim Bopp of Indiana and Anita Milanovich of Bozeman, who represented the plaintiffs, did not immediately return phone calls Monday seeking to learn whether they would ask for a full panel of the appeals court to consider the case. It was filed in 2011 by American Tradition Partnerships, several political action committees and Republican central committees.

If the case is not appealed, individuals and political action committees will be allowed to donate a maximum of $1,320 to a gubernatorial candidate in Montana while political parties will be allowed to donate $47,700.

During the 2016 election cycle, individuals could donate as much as $1,900 to a gubernatorial candidate, PACs could donate $10,610 and political parties could donate $23,850.

The appeals court said that while the donation limits seem low, they are quite reasonable when considering the cost of campaigning in Montana.

Betsy Z. Russell
Betsy Z. Russell joined The Spokesman-Review in 1991. She currently is a reporter in the Boise Bureau covering Idaho state government and politics, and other news from Idaho's state capital.

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