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Sunday, May 19, 2024 | Back issues
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Campaign-Disclosure Win in Montana Has Big Implications

HELENA, Mont. (CN) - A federal judge in Montana upheld the state's campaign-finance reporting and disclosure laws late Monday, clearing the way for what could become a significant challenge to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling.

In his 53-page decision, Chief U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen systematically addressed each of the 23 claims brought by Montanans for Community Development. They claimed that Montana's 2015 Disclose Act violated their First Amendment rights; Christensen disagreed, writing that the group "provides no explanation why the organization is incapable of complying with Montana's disclosure requirements."

Neither of the group's attorneys, James Bopp Jr. nor Anita Milanovic returned telephone calls seeking comment Tuesday afternoon. But Jonathan Motl, Montana's commissioner on political practices and one of the defendants in the lawsuit, is thrilled with the decision.

"It was very workman-like the way he went through it. The judge literally went through every allegation and came up with specific reasons why it wasn't valid," Motl said. "We fully expect this will be appealed to the Ninth Circuit and potentially wind up all the way to the U.S. Supreme Court. But this was a thorough decision. I would much rather be defending it at the Ninth than attacking it."

Other defendants included Montana Attorney General Tim Fox and Leo Gallagher, the Lewis and Clark County Attorney where the lawsuit was filed.

Montanans for Community Development calls itself an "issue advocacy organization" that was formed to promote and encourage policies that create jobs, and claimed it wasn't affiliated with any political party or committee. But the group has only formally met once since first organizing in October 2013, and didn't have any members, telephone numbers, email addresses or even a website.

The crux of the group's argument is that it wanted to send "mailers" about various issues to Montana voters within a 60-day window of the 2014 election, including the names of candidates running for office. They said the mailers would be "educational" and not advocate voting for or against a candidate.

Under Montana's Disclosure Act, however, the group still needed to declare itself a political action committee and report its income and disclose contributors. But the group claimed that would have a "chilling" effect on its First Amendment rights, and in its 2014 lawsuit challenged the constitutionality of the act and said it was too burdensome to be undertaken.

Christensen disagreed, noting that it would take a mere 10 minutes to fill out the form to register as a political action committee. The group only had to list its treasurer or contact person, a brief description of the committee type and purpose, a list of the names of candidates identified by expenditure and the name and address of their bank.

"Repeated reporting reflects the reality of election expenditures and contributions. Political committees are constantly making new expenditures and receiving contributions. It is common sense that in order to inform the electorate, these events must be reported on a continual and timely basis," Christensen wrote.

Motl stressed the simplicity of complying with Montana's law.

"They're simply being asked to report and disclose," Motl said. "The judge agreed that that's measurable and not an infringement on your freedom of speech."

Montanans have deep-seated opposition to undisclosed campaign finance expenditures, with a history that goes back to when industrial "Copper King" William Clark bought a U.S. Senate seat in 1899 by bribing state legislators with envelopes of $1,000 bills.

Clark's plan initially worked, until the Senate learned of the bribery and refused to seat him. The escapade led to the 17th Amendment, which took the task of choosing U.S. senators from state legislators and gave it to the people.

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