Request Denied to Bypass Disclosure Law in Political Mailers

By Beacon Staff

HELENA — A federal judge has denied a gun-rights organization’s request to suspend Montana laws so it can mail postcards attacking gubernatorial candidate Steve Bullock without disclosing its donors or how it spends its money.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen on Monday ruled against Virginia-based National Association for Gun Rights’ request for a preliminary injunction, saying the group is asking the court to strike down the state’s long-standing disclosure requirements on the eve of an election.

“The public’s right to know who is financing political campaigns vastly outweighs the minimal burden imposed by the … disclosure and reporting requirements,” Christensen wrote in his order.

Outside money and challenges to Montana’s election laws have roiled this year’s elections, particularly the close governor’s race between Bullock and Republican Rick Hill. American Tradition Partnership, which, like the National Association for Gun Rights, is registered as a tax exempt social welfare advocacy group, has led high-profile court challenges on multiple laws.

Bullock’s campaign defended the attorney general’s record on gun rights, saying the National Rifle Association called him “courageous” in 2009 for joining a gun-rights case before the U.S. Supreme Court. The NRA has endorsed Hill in this election.

The National Association for Gun Rights had planned to spend $20,000 on postcards this week criticizing Bullock’s position on gun rights but did not want to register with the state as an “incidental political committee.”

An incidental political committee is one that is not organized for the purpose of influencing elections but makes an expenditure that supports a candidate or issue. Such a committee must file disclosure reports with the state commissioner of political practices.

The group challenged that definition as being too broad and a violation of its free-speech rights. The group also said it shouldn’t be required to register because it planned to spend only a very small percentage of its overall budget on the fliers.

The group sued to block Montana from enforcing the law because it feared the commissioner for political practices would bring a case against it like the commissioner did two years ago against American Tradition Partnership, then called Western Tradition Partnership. That group sued the commissioner for finding it must register as a political committee.

Christensen wrote in his order that the law does not prohibit the gun-rights group’s speech and the postcards it intended to distribute falls within the reach of the Montana law.

“Thus the plaintiff has a well-founded fear that the law will be enforced against it,” the judge wrote.

The group has a choice, Christensen wrote: It can spend a few minutes filling out the registration forms before sending the postcards, it can mail the postcards without registering and face a fine, or it can refrain from sending them out.

Earlier this month, American Tradition Partnership successfully argued before U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell that Montana’s campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional.

That decision has now become the focal point in the race between Bullock and Hill.

In the six days before the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Lovell’s ruling, the Montana Republican Party donated $500,000 to Hill. Bullock is suing to prevent the former congressman from using in the campaign now that the $22,600 limit is back in place.