Judge Denies Bid to Block Montana Rules on Political Action Committee Names

Montana State Capitol in Helena. (Courthouse News photo/Chris Marshall)

(CN) — A federal judge has refused to block a Montana law that governs how political action committees can name themselves.

U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, a Barack Obama appointee, denied an injunction request by the political action committee Doctors For A Healthy Montana. The group asked Christensen to halt the enforcement of a code found within the Political Committee Naming & Labeling Act of 1985.  

Under the law, a political action committee must select a name that clearly identifies any economic or special interests that may be connected to it. For instance, if the majority of committee contributors share an identifiable special interest or the same employer, the committee name must disclose or reflect those interests.

Doctors For A Healthy Montana, however, claims the law infringes the group’s First Amendment rights.

The group’s legal fight began with a run-in with state Representative Joel Krautter, a Republican. According to the complaint, Dr. Annie Bukacek and other pro-life Montanans founded the group to help inform voters about what they saw as inconsistencies between pro-life claims made by representatives like Krautter and their actual voting record — namely, voting to expand Medicaid, which the PAC says is used to support taxpayer-funded abortions in Montana.

Part of this effort to inform voters involved the PAC placing a billboard in Krautter’s district that called attention to Krautter’s voting record on this issue.

Krautter filed a complaint with Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jeffrey Mangan, arguing the PAC should be barred from using its name under the Political Committee Naming & Labeling Act. According to Krautter, the group violated the statute by having majority of members who were not doctors, but politicians.

Krautter asked Mangan to take “appropriate action against this group for using a false and misleading name.”

“In reality, the name of this group should be ‘Politicians for a Sick and Unhealthy Montana,’ not “Doctors for a Healthy Montana,” Krautter said, as reported by the Great Falls Tribune.

In turn, Doctors For A Healthy Montana sued Montana Attorney General Timothy Fox and Mangan, asking the court to find the committee statute unenforceable because it’s unconstitutional.

 “This harassment and threat of enforcement of a patently unconstitutional statute has, barely six weeks before Montana’s primary election, chilled efforts by Doctors For A Healthy Montana to continue educating voters about Rep. Krautter’s support for taxpayer-funded abortion,” the PAC says in its lawsuit, which was filed in April.

On Wednesday, Judge Christensen denied the PAC’s request for a preliminary injunction. Christensen found the committee has not shown it will suffer irreparable injury in the absence of an injunction.

The judge did note, however, that the membership of the committee has recently changed and that is has now received contributions from eight members, four of whom are doctors. Christensen said the state has said that Doctors For A Healthy Montana are now in compliance with the challenged statute.

Given its compliance with the statute, Christensen said future prosecution of the PAC is unlikely and the group will be in the same position with or without an injunction.

The only benefit to issuing an injunction at this time could be to forecast how the court views the merits of the case. But, Christensen said, this matter deserves complete consideration.

Matthew Monforton, attorney for Doctors For A Healthy Montana, said that he is confident that those who started the committee will prevail.

“It is disappointing that Attorney General Tim Fox and Political Practices Commissioner Jeff Mangan continue to seek civil penalties against Dr. Annie Bukacek and other pro-life Montanans simply for criticizing pro-choice Republicans like Rep. Krautter,” Monforton said in an email. “But we are confident that they will prevail against this blatant attack on their First Amendment rights.”

Matthew Cochenour, an attorney for Fox and Mangan in this case, did not immediately respond to request for comment by press time.

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