Judge tosses Montana campaign finance limits

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By MATT GOURAS, Associated Press

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A federal judge on Wednesday struck down Montana's campaign contribution limits as unconstitutional, a decision that comes less than a month before Election Day and marks the latest in a string of court rulings against the state's campaign laws.

Barring an appeal that stays the judge's order, the ruling means individuals and political parties can dump unlimited amounts of money into the coffers of their preferred candidate at the very peak of the campaign season. The conservative group that brought the lawsuit to overturn the limits applauded the decision.

The state promised to file an emergency stay with 9th U.S. Circuit of Appeals, hoping to block the judge's decision until it can be reviewed.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, who issued the decision three weeks after a trial, said current limits prevent Montana candidates from amassing the money needed to run an effective campaign. It affects all races in the state from the governor on down, but does not affect federal races for the U.S. House and Senate that are covered under other laws.

Lovell issued only a short ruling Wednesday, promising more details later of the order, which blocks the state from enforcing its campaign contribution limits.

"This court will in due course issue complete and extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law that support this order," the judge wrote. "They will be filed separately, though, so that this order can be issued before voting begins in the upcoming election."

Conservative activists, corporations, and Republican groups argued that the contribution limits are unconstitutionally low and prevent effective campaigning. The effort was joined by American Tradition Partnership, a conservative group based in the Washington, D.C., area that has fought state efforts to force it to disclose its donors.

"The old contributions limits were so low candidates had no choice but to grovel before special interests to get elected," ATP Montana Director Doug Lair said in a statement. "The political establishment can't tell citizens to shut up because they've reached their speech limit."

Attorney General Steve Bullock promised to fight the decision.

"This is a destructive ruling for Montana's citizen democracy, and disturbing for those of us who believe that democracy is not for sale and politics is about values and issues, not money," Bullock said in a statement. "In declaring our campaign contribution limits unconstitutional, a federal judge has effectively put Montana's elections up for auction to the highest bidder."

The limits that were struck down range from $630 for an individual contributing to a governor's race to $160 for a state House candidate. The amounts are adjusted each election cycle to account for inflation.

The law also limited aggregate donations from political parties. A candidate for governor, for instance, was limited to accepting a maximum of $22,600 from all political party committees.

Montana has seen many of its laws struck down in the wake the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision that opened the door for more corporate spending in federal races, citing freedom of speech issues.

The Supreme Court subsequently tossed the state's century-old, voter-approved ban on independent corporate political spending in state races. 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.

Last month, a federal appeals court struck down Montana's ban on partisan endorsements of judicial candidates, citing Citizens United.

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.

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