HELENA- A prominent critic of campaign-finance limits has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to strike down Montana’s campaign contribution limits, arguing they are an unconstitutional limit on free speech.
Late last month, attorney James Bopp Jr. asked the nation’s high court to overrule a 2017 lower-court ruling that upheld Montana’s 24-year-old limits on campaign contributions for state candidates.
“This case presents the exceptionally important question of whether Montana can stifle the voices of individuals, political committees and political parties through very low contribution limits, without any evidence of quid-pro-quo corruption,” Bopp wrote in his 38-page petition.
The U.S. Supreme Court will decide soon whether to accept the case. The high court accepts only about 2 percent of requested appeals.
John Barnes, spokesman for Montana Attorney General Tim Fox, said Thursday the state is waiting to hear whether the high court will request a response from Fox, before it decides to take up the case.
Bopp, from Terre Haute, Indiana, has been an attorney in many cases challenging limits on campaign spending and contributions – including Citizens United, the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court ruling that said corporations cannot be prohibiting from spending on elections.
His appeal in the Montana case is the latest development in a seven-year-old lawsuit challenging Montana’s contribution limits, which were enacted by initiative in 1994.
Under current law, donors can give up to $1,320 a year to gubernatorial candidates in Montana — $680 for both the primary and general election cycle. The limit for other statewide offices is $680 a year; for legislative candidates, it’s $360.
Montana also has aggregate limits for how much candidates can accept from political-action committees and limits how much political parties can give to candidates.
For example, state Senate candidates are limited to $2,850 per election in PAC contributions and political parties can give up to $24,500 to gubernatorial candidates.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena struck down the limits in 2012 and then again in 2015, but the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overruled him last October and said Montana’s limits are acceptable.
The plaintiffs in the case are a collection of Montana-based conservative, business and Republican Party groups.
In his petition to the U.S. Supreme Court, Bopp said federal courts have allowed contributions limits only if the state can show they are “closely drawn” to avoid violating free-speech and freedom of association rights, and that they prevent corruption or its appearance.
The 9th U.S. Circuit did not properly apply these standards and its ruling conflicts with orders from other federal appeals courts, and the Supreme Court should resolve the differences, he argued.
Bopp also said that Montana’s contribution limits are so low that they “distort” campaigns and encourage campaign spending in other, less-transparent ways.
“A significant number of potential donors are left with money on the table after they make their maximum contribution to a candidate,” he wrote. “Of course, they spend this money on the election anyway and are forced to use (other vehicles). …
“Many of these vehicles are less transparent than candidate committees, all but political parties are unaccountable, and their campaign spending is often inefficient, negative and disruptive.”