Lawsuit Challenges State’s Campaign Finance Limits

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – Conservative groups are increasing their attack on Montana’s campaign finance laws with a new lawsuit that seeks to dramatically expand how much money candidates can take in and who can give it to them.

Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock on Thursday criticized the latest assault on the state’s campaign finance regulations, saying his office will vigorously fight a lawsuit that would “fundamentally change the way elections are run in Montana.”

The federal lawsuit filed Tuesday is being led by the same group, American Tradition Partnership, which has so far been successful with its case to overturn the state’s century-old ban on corporate political spending. That case is scheduled for arguments later this month before the Montana Supreme Court.

The new challenge goes much further. It argues that the state’s limits on the amount that individuals, political action committees, political parties and others can contribute are unconstitutional and restrict free speech.

The 123-page federal court filing also asks the court for an immediate order preventing the state from enforcing the contribution limits.

“The plaintiffs in this case want to engage in their proposed political speech and association activities right now, in the months leading up to the upcoming 2012 election, but are prohibited by Montana’s election and campaign finance laws,” Helena attorney James Brown wrote in the brief.

The group filing the lawsuit is led by American Tradition Partnership, a Washington D.C.-based group that has long tangled with state campaign finance authorities and riled Democrats and even some Republicans with its attack mailers.

The lawsuit also seeks to throw out the “false statement” law that aims to ban untrue statements against political opponents. The lawsuit argues it is too vague and limiting, and runs afoul of the First Amendment.

“The Founders did not trust government to be the speech police and tell us what we can say, or what we must say. Yet Montana’s false statement law and disclaimer requirement do just that,” said James Bopp, Jr., a lawyer with the James Madison Center for Free Speech that is representing the groups.

The lawsuit asks for different remedies based on the office sought and the source of money.

For instance, it would let political parties give as much as they like to their candidates. But it says a limit is OK on individuals as long as it is increased. Like its other lawsuits, it also tackles the ban on corporate campaign spending.

The groups point out that low limits on contributions in other states have previously been tossed out by courts.

Bullock argued Montana’s system works. He said the state designed its matrix of relatively small limits on contributions to force candidates to talk to large groups of individual Montanans as they seek money for campaign coffers.

“It does more than change the state’s regulation of campaign finance. It changes our campaigns entirely,” Bullock said. “Enough is enough. Enough is really enough when you are trying to undo our whole system of regulating campaigns.”

Other groups joining the lawsuit include the Montana Right to Life Association PAC, Sweet Grass Council for Community Integrity, Lake County Republican Central Committee; Beaverhead County Republican Central Committee, a few corporations and some individuals who say they want to donate more money to legislative candidates than the current maximum of $160 allows.

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