Judge Tosses Closed Primary Lawsuit, But Fight is Not Over

Judge dismissed the lawsuit by the Montana Republican Party and 10 GOP county central committees

By Associated Press

HELENA – A federal judge on Monday dismissed a lawsuit that sought to allow only Republican-registered voters to participate in its primary elections. But the legal fight to throw out Montana’s century-old open primary system isn’t over yet.

U.S. District Judge Brian Morris dismissed the lawsuit by the Montana Republican Party and 10 GOP county central committees that claimed open primaries allow Democrats and independent voters to influence the outcome of their elections. The system violates Republicans’ freedom of association and forces candidates to change their message to appeal to “crossover voters,” the lawsuit said.

The dismissal comes at the Republicans’ request after after a series of rulings by Morris, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and the U.S. Supreme Court that ensured the June 7 primary elections will remain open to all registered voters.

The state party and the county committees filed separate motions to dismiss the case. State party officials have said their chances of winning were low, based on those earlier rulings, and they reserved the right to re-file the lawsuit at a later date.

The county committees, however, intend to appeal Morris’ previous decisions in the case to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, including his rejection of their request to issue a preliminary injunction to close the June 7 primaries. Morris had ruled the case could go to trial, but he said the Republican plaintiffs had scant evidence that crossover voting exists in Montana.

Attorneys for the state had argued against allowing the committees to appeal to the 9th Circuit, saying it would give them the benefit of avoiding a trial and going straight to the appellate court.

But Morris ruled for the GOP committees, saying the 9th Circuit looks favorably on allowing appeals from voluntary dismissals because it promotes efficient use of the judicial system.

Secretary of State Linda McCulloch, a Democrat, said closing the primaries would shift the power the voters hold to the hands of party leaders. She added that she is glad the system survived the latest attack against it.

“This isn’t that first time, and I am sure it will not be the last. But for today at least, this is a victory,” she said.