Ninth Circuit Reinstates Spending Limits in Montana Politics

SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – In a 2-1 reversal, the Ninth Circuit ruled Monday that Montana can limit the amount of money donors can give to individual candidates.

Lead plaintiff Doug Lair sued Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl in 2011, joined by Republican and conservative groups who claimed the law restricted free speech and that its reporting requirements burdened politicians running for office.

Ninth Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher wrote for the majority Monday: “Because Montana’s limits are both justified by and adequately tailored to the state’s interest in combating quid pro quo corruption or its appearance, we reverse.

“Montana has shown the risk of actual or perceived quid pro quo corruption in Montana politics is more than ‘mere conjecture,’ the low bar it must surmount before imposing contribution limits of any amount.”

Key to the ruling is “quid pro quo corruption,” language used in the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. FEC. There, the Supreme Court said government control on campaign spending might be justified if there was clear evidence of the granting of favors in exchange for donations.

Fisher wrote: “The panel held that Montana had shown the risk of actual or perceived quid pro quo corruption in Montana politics was more than ‘mere conjecture.’”

Ninth Circuit Judge Carlos Bea dissented, finding no evidence that elected officials had been involved in bribery.

Governor Steve Bullock, a Democrat, praised the ruling, saying gushers of money allowed out-of-state corporations to buy officeholders.

“For a century in Montana, winning an election for state office has meant going door to door and meeting face to face with everyday voters: democracy at its best,” Bullock said in a statement. “Today, we’re one step closer to keeping it that way. Elections should be decided by ‘we, the people’ — not by corporations, millionaires, or wealthy special interests buying more television ads.”

Republican Attorney General Tim Fox’s office defended the case and applauded the ruling.

“Today’s ruling is a win for democracy in Montana,” Fox said in a statement. “The voters of Montana approved the current contribution limits, and I’m proud of the hard work my team put in to defend the will of the people.”

Under the reinstated law, individual donations are limited to $170 to local candidates, down from $330, and $1,320 to gubernatorial candidates, down from $1,900.

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