Court Tosses Ban on Partisan Judicial Endorsements

By Beacon Staff

HELENA – A federal appeals court has struck down Montana’s ban on partisan endorsements of judicial candidates, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision that has opened the door for more corporate spending in politics.

Judges from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Monday in a preliminary injunction that the ban was an unconstitutional free speech restriction. The decision could ultimately result in political party spending in state races for prized judgeships.

The ruling was the latest to overturn Montana campaign finance and election laws — a fight that has put the state at the center of the debate over the effect of the 2010 Citizens United decision.

Citizens United made it clear that the same First Amendment issue applies to the Montana ban on partisan judicial endorsements, according to the 9th Circuit ruling.

“Political speech — including the endorsement of candidates for office — is at the core of speech protected by the First Amendment,” the court wrote. “This protection extends as much to political parties exercising their right of association as to individuals.”

Attorney General Steve Bullock called it “one more case of federal intrusion” on the state’s laws.

“I am extremely disappointed in this decision,” Bullock said in a statement. “Without a truly independent and nonpartisan judiciary, Montanans may no longer continue to trust the integrity of the legal system they rely on to see that justice is done.”

A dissenting opinion from the court backed the state, called the majority opinion a “big step backwards for the state of Montana” and argued the state had a compelling interest in protecting judgeships from the fray of partisan politics.

“Political endorsements, much more than judges’ discussion of issues, lead to political indebtedness, which in turn has a corrosive impact on the public’s perception of the judicial system,” the dissent wrote. “The fact that political parties can back up their endorsements with significant sums of money threatens to further erode state judges’ ability to act independently and impartially.”

Monday’s ruling came in advance of a trial scheduled for next week. The lawsuit was filed earlier this year by the Sanders County Republican Party.

The U.S. Supreme Court also earlier this year ruled as unconstitutional Montana’s century-old, voter-approved ban on independent corporate political spending. That decision prompted a new ballot initiative that, if approved in November by voters, asks state leaders to seek a constitutional amendment undermining the high court’s decision.

And U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell earlier this year ruled as unconstitutional laws requiring attack ads to disclose voting records and a ban on knowingly false statements in such ads. Lovell also decided that Montana cannot ban corporations from making contributions to political committees that make independent expenditures — a similar issue to the one addressed in Citizens United.

Also, Lovell is considering a request from conservative and Republican groups to strike down the state’s campaign contribution limits — another issue that will also likely ultimately go to the appeals court.

The Montana Republican Party said it wouldn’t begin considering endorsements for state Supreme Court or state district court candidates. Instead, it will wait for the dust to clear on the legal fight, GOP spokesman Chris Shipp said.

Montana Democratic Party spokesman Chris Saeger said the party’s executive board hasn’t decided how to react to the circuit court decision.