U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell last week struck down the campaign contribution limits that Montana officials have enforced in state elections since 1995, declaring them unconstitutional. The decision resulted in nearly a week of confusion for candidates and state officials. It looked as though the final month of the 2012 election would see a sudden influx of unlimited donations.
The Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated those contribution limits late Tuesday, but uncertainty remains over whether the district court ruling will stand upon further review. Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock and Commissioner of Political Practices James Murry had promptly filed for a stay of Lovell's Oct. 3 decision, stating that "some candidates have been campaigning for nearly two years; all candidates have relied upon the longstanding rules to develop campaign strategies and allocate resources."
The immediate ramifications of the district court ruling were made clear last week as candidates such as Rep. Champ Edmunds, a Republican from Missoula, began calling potential donors to inform them that contribution limits are now void. Lovell's ruling opened the door, however briefly, for major campaign donations from outside groups such as the Democratic and Republican governors associationsentities that had previously directed the bulk of their money to independent advertising and state political parties instead.
How much spending occurred in the week before the Ninth Circuit's intervention won't be known until disclosure reports are filed later this year.
The groups fighting the contribution limits, including two Republican county committees, have continually argued that the limits unfairly hinder political free speech and competitive campaigning. They've so far been spearheaded by American Tradition Partnership, a Colorado-based 501(c)(4) who's financial backers remain a mystery save for coal giant Alpha Natural Resources.
ATP is also responsible for helping overturn Montana's Corrupt Practices Law in the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year, and has chipped away at campaign finance regulations in other states nationwide. With the current Montana case now in appeals, the nonprofit will doubtlessly push harder to see the state's contribution limits lifted. And given ATP's resolve, state officials are now concerned with what legal battle it might stake out in Montana next.ight stake out in Montana next.