(HELENA) In a 2-1 vote, a federal appeals court panel has reinstated Montana’s limits on direct contributions to political campaigns, reversing a district judge’s ruling.
In his majority opinion, Judge Raymond Fisher of the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said the limits were justified by the state’s interest in preventing the risk of actual or perceived corruption. He said the lower limits did not restrict candidates’ ability to campaign effectively or make it difficult for challengers to defeat incumbents.
Montana’s restored contribution limits are among the lowest in the country. Individuals will be able to give no more than $660 to a gubernatorial candidate, $330 to candidates for other statewide offices like attorney general, and $170 to candidates for state legislature and other district, county or city offices. The limits also restrict the aggregate amount that political party groups can give to a single candidate.
The limits apply to individual elections rather than election cycles, so contributors will be able to make the maximum donation twice if a candidate faces a contested primary.
James Bopp, attorney for the group that challenged the limits, said Monday he intends to appeal the decision, though he has not decided whether to ask for a rehearing in the 9th Circuit or take it directly to the U.S. Supreme Court.
“We’re certainly not going to let this lie,” he said.
Bopp said the majority opinion didn’t hold the state to a high enough standard. He said there was no evidence that these limits were necessary to prevent elected officials from offering political favors to contributors.
In his dissenting opinion, 9th Circuit Judge Carlos Bea agreed with that argument, and said the contribution limits were unconstitutional restrictions on free speech.
Monday’s ruling is the latest turn in a six-year legal battle over the state’s contribution limits, which were initially established by a voter-approved initiative in 1994. A coalition of individuals and political, business and Republican party groups sued to overturn the limits, saying they were so low that they kept candidates from running effective campaigns.
Last year, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell of Helena agreed with the plaintiffs and blocked the state from enforcing the lower limits.
In a statement Monday, Gov. Steve Bullock, who defended Montana’s contribution limits while serving as state Attorney General, praised the 9th Circuit Court’s decision to reinstate them.
“Montanans have time and again chosen transparency and person-to-person campaigning over big, out-of-state money,” Bullock said. “With this decision, those protections are here to stay.”
Current Attorney General Tim Fox released a statement calling the decision “a win for democracy in Montana.”
“The voters of Montana approved the current contribution limits, and I’m proud of the hard work my team put in to defend the will of the people,” said Fox.
The decision will have an effect on candidates in the upcoming municipal elections. After the district judge’s ruling, the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices returned to the contribution limits the state had before 1994, adjusted for inflation. That allowed individuals to donate up to $330 to candidates for city offices in a given election cycle.
Jaime MacNaughton, attorney for the Montana Commissioner of Political Practices, said the agency will enforce the new rules going forward. That means any future individual donations in this year’s elections will have to be $170 or less, but they won’t require candidates to give back any larger donations they’ve already received.
If anyone has already donated $170 or more to a candidate, they won’t be able to make any additional contributions before the Nov. 7 election.