Campaign Contribution Limit Challenge Coming to a Head

Montana's contribution limits are among the lowest in the nation

By Associated Press

HELENA – Individuals and organizations trying to upend Montana’s campaign contribution limits say court rulings have made it impossible for the state to justify the caps.

State attorneys counter that the limits meet the standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The two sides asked a federal judge on Friday to decide without a trial whether the limits are constitutional. A ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell could come before the state’s June 7 primary elections and potentially affect another gubernatorial election.

Lovell’s previous ruling against the caps allowed a $500,000 donation to Republican candidate Rick Hill in the 2012 campaign against the eventual winner, Democrat Steve Bullock. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals later reinstated the limits, prompting a lawsuit by Bullock against Hill that led to the election’s final weeks playing out in a courtroom.

Last year, the 9th Circuit ordered Lovell to re-examine the issue based on a standard set by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United ruling, which allowed unlimited corporate and union spending in elections. States must prove their caps are preventing what the court called quid pro quo corruption, such as bribery, the 9th Circuit ruled.

Before Citizens United, the state only had to prove that the limits prevented wealthy donors from overly influencing the political process.

The argument now before Lovell comes down to whether the state’s limits meet the higher standard, and whether the rules are preventing candidates from waging effective campaigns.

The plaintiffs — a group of individuals, businesses and political parties — argue that the Supreme Court’s definition of corruption is limited to explicit exchanges of money for improper promises by public officials. Anything broader would chill financial participation in elections and allow for the abuse of corruption allegations, attorney Anita Milanovich said in her court filing.

“Voters will be unable to hold public officials accountable for behaving inconsistent with their campaign positions,” Milanovich wrote.

The high court’s definition of quid pro quo corruption is not strictly limited to money for political favors but upholds past Supreme Court decisions that included the appearance of corruption that comes with large contributions, Assistant Attorney General Matthew Cochenour countered.

“There is nothing novel about large contributions posing a threat of corruption; rather, it is inherent,” Cochenour wrote in his court filing.

Montana’s contribution limits are among the lowest in the nation. The per-election limit on donations to gubernatorial candidates is $660 for individuals and political-action committees, and $23,850 for political parties. The caps to statewide and legislative races are even lower.

Milanovich’s clients argued those limits keep candidates from sending information to their voters and harm the election process. Cochenour said the caps target only the top 10 percent of contributions and candidates can still run effective campaigns.

Lovell did not make an immediate ruling.

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