HELENA — A constitutional challenge to Montana’s campaign contribution limits is back in court with the potential to affect the 2016 primary elections after the same case disrupted the 2012 governor’s race weeks before Election Day.
Then, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell struck down contribution limits in state elections as being too low for candidates to effectively campaign. A federal appeals court reinstated the limits a little over a week later in October 2012, but by that time, the Montana Republican Party had donated $500,000 to gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill.
Hill spent the money, leading to a lawsuit and complaints of campaign violations that resulted in the final act of the campaign playing out in a courtroom before Democrat Steve Bullock won the election.
The contribution limits case was back in Lovell’s courtroom Tuesday after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s 2012 ruling and ordered him to re-examine the issue. That sets up another scenario in which Lovell could rule on contribution limits again just weeks or months before the June 7 election.
“I think the judge is going to be careful,” Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said. “I don’t think he will allow chaos in the election.”
Montana’s individual contribution limits are $170 for legislative candidates, $320 for attorney general candidates and $650 for gubernatorial candidates. The law also sets total contribution limits from political party committees to candidates that range from $850 per election for a state House candidate to $23,350 for a gubernatorial candidate.
The lawsuit against Motl came from a group of conservative activists, corporations and political organizations who complained the limits were unconstitutionally low. They are represented by James Bopp, an Indiana lawyer who initiated the Citizens United lawsuit that led to the landmark 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that corporations can spend unlimited amounts in federal elections.
Lovell sided with Bopp’s clients in 2012, but the 9th Circuit ruled the judge had used the wrong legal standard in his decision. The appeals court ordered Lovell to determine whether Montana has a legitimate interest in keeping its campaign contribution limits, using a post-Citizens United test to prove whether the limits are preventing corruption or the appearance of corruption.
Lovell set an April 18 hearing on the case and a May 23 trial, if needed.
Attorney Anita Milanovich, an attorney for Bopp’s firm, said her clients don’t want chaos in the June 7 elections, but they want the case resolved in time for the primaries.
“This is the nature of First Amendment litigation,” she said.
Hill, the 2012 gubernatorial candidate, also is a party in the case. His attorney, Matthew Monforton, asked the judge to prevent Motl from filing a civil action in state court against Hill for accepting the $500,000 donation in 2012 before this case is decided.
The statute of limitations for Motl to act on the complaint against Hill by former Bullock campaign manager Kevin O’Brien is up next year.
Lovell said he will consider Monforton’s request if a civil case is filed against Hill. Motl said he doesn’t plan to file one without first going to Lovell.