Split Ruling on Montana Election Laws

     (CN)- A federal judge blocked parts of Montana’s campaign finance and elections laws, which Republican and other groups claimed are unconstitutional.



     Senior U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell, in Helena, found that Montana law that prohibits people from misrepresenting issues relevant to a candidate’s campaign is unconstitutionally vague and overbroad.
     Political action committees, two counties’ Republican committees, an anti-abortion group and others, including individuals, sued the Montana Attorney General and other state officials in September 2011.
     The plaintiffs claimed the state laws that bar corporate contributions, false statements about candidates’ voting records, that limit campaign contributions and impose disclaimer requirements on political speech are unconstitutional.
     Judge Lovell on Friday granted a preliminary injunction on some, but not all, of their arguments.
     Lovell found that Montana’s political civil libel statute is unconstitutionally vague, specifically the part that makes it illegal for a person to “misrepresent” something “relevant to the issues of the campaign.”
     “There is simply no way for a person or an organization to know with certainty whether an issue is ‘relevant’ to a candidate’s campaign,” Lovell wrote.
     He continued: “The plaintiffs poignantly ask whether this statute is ‘restricted to statements about the candidates’ prior and current government service? Or does it also include statements about such things as candidates’ academic backgrounds? Their spouses? Their current or past employment? Their spending habits?
     “The plaintiff’s questions are well taken. A person of ‘ordinary intelligence’ would not have ‘a reasonable opportunity to know what is prohibited under the statute.”
     Lovell disagreed with the defendants’ argument that if a person says something about a candidate, that makes the speech “relevant to the campaign.”
     “Suppose, for example, that Candidate A says that Candidate B has blue eyes when, in fact, she has brown eyes. Is that statement ‘relevant to the issues of the campaign’? Under the defendants’ theory, yes. But, as we are often reminded during elections, not everything that is said during a campaign is truly ‘relevant to the issues of the campaign,'” Lovell wrote. “Moreover, relevancy is in the eye of the beholder – what is relevant to one voter might not be relevant to another.”
     Lovell also agreed with the plaintiffs that the law requiring printed election material to include “a disclosure of contrasting votes known to have been made by the candidate on the same issue if closely related in time” is unconstitutionally vague.
     “A candidate’s vote on a particular tax issue in 2009 could be construed as ‘closely related in time’ to a vote on the same tax issue in 2011 (the following legislative session),” Lovell wrote. “But someone else might construe it differently to mean, as the defendants suggest, the same legislative session. And that is the point- the statute utterly ‘fails to clearly mark the boundary between permissible and impermissible speech.'”
     But Lovell rejected the challenge to campaign contribution limits, finding that Montana has a sufficiently important interest to justify the limits, based on 9th Circuit precedent.

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