MT’s Campaign-Donor Limits Still Up in the Air

     SEATTLE (CN) – The constitutionality of Montana’s limits on contributions to political candidates must be reexamined using the proper legal standard, the 9th Circuit ruled Tuesday.
     Rancher Doug Lair led a coalition of conservative Republican groups in a 2012 challenge to the state’s limits on the amounts of money individuals, PACs and political parties can contribute to political candidates’ campaigns, claiming the limits violate the First Amendment.
     After a bench trial, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell found the campaign-finance limits unconstitutional and issued an injunction to halt them.
     But Lovell should have considered the “new and more restrictive” legal standard for “corruption” before banning the limits, a panel for the 9th Circuit held Tuesday in a 24-page opinion.
     Writing for the panel, Circuit Judge Carlos Bea noted that in 2003’s Montana Right to Life Association v. Eddleman the 9th Circuit created a test for challenges to contribution limits.
     In that case, the appellate court held that limits would be upheld if there was adequate evidence that the limitation furthers a sufficiently important state interest and if the limits were “closely drawn” to focus narrowly on the state’s interest while leaving donors free to affiliate with a candidate and candidates able to raise sufficient funds to run an effective campaign.
     Bea wrote that before the Supreme Court’s 2010 ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, “it was enough to show the state’s interest was simply to prevent the influence contributors of large sums have on politicians, or the appearance of such influence,” but this is “no longer so.”
     Citizens United ruling narrowed the definition of corruption to “only quid pro quo corruption, or its appearance,” Bea wrote for the panel.
     However, the case “left untouched” Eddleman‘s formulation of the overall framework for determining whether contribution limits are unconstitutional and “it simply narrowed what constitutes an ‘important state interest’,” Bea wrote.
     Lovell followed neither Citizens United nor Eddleman in deciding to toss Big Sky Country’s donor limits, the panel found, choosing instead to apply a Supreme Court’s opinion in 2006’s Randall v. Sorrell, a challenge of Vermont’s campaign-contribution limits.
     Randall called for a two-part test looking for “danger signs” rather than Eddleman‘s “closely drawn” limits to establish constitutionality. But Randall is not binding on any court because it was a plurality decision by the nation’s high court with no clear majority, the panel ruled.
     The appellate panel also acknowledged that Montana may not have carried its burden by establishing what important state interest the limits serve, and ordered Lovell to first “decide whether Montana has carried its burden in showing the contributions limits further a valid ‘important state interest.'”
     “Doing so will ensure the district court and any reviewing courts will be able to evaluate whether the contribution limits are ‘closely drawn’,” Bea concluded.
     Neither side could be reached for comment on Tuesday.

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