Mont contribution limits in place through election

HELENA, Mont. -- Montana's campaign contribution limits will remain in place at least through the November election after a 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Tuesday that put a hold on a federal judge's decision that would have allowed for unlimited spending in state races.

The appeals court also indicated it thinks the state ultimately has a strong case as it seeks a reversal of U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell's decision, which agreed with conservative groups who argued the state's contribution limits were too low to allow effective campaigning.

The court first intervened last week, issuing a temporary stay shortly after Lovell's ruling. The court issued a lengthy order Tuesday keeping the stay in place until it makes a final decision on the state's appeal. The appeals court noted that it specifically reviewed the state contribution limits in 2003 and found them to meet constitutional muster.

The order said tossing the contribution limits jeopardizes the fairness of the coming election. It says the state of Montana and its public interest could be irreparably harmed.

"The State of Montana has made a strong showing that it is likely to succeed on appeal," the appeals court order says.

The case is one of several brought by conservative groups seeking to strike down state campaign laws they view as unconstitutional restrictions of speech.

Attorney General Steve Bullock has taken a prominent role in defending the state's campaign laws. He lauded the appeals court intervention.

"The court has said that Montana's campaign contribution limits will stay in effect for this election. That is an important victory for all Montanans, regardless of party affiliation," Bullock said. "Montanans put a high value on the integrity and fairness of our election system, and the court has allowed us to maintain our citizen democracy, rather than putting our elections up for auction to the highest bidder."

Montana limits range from $630 for an individual contributing to a governor's race to $160 for a state House candidate. The amounts are adjusted each election cycle to account for inflation. The law also limited aggregate donations from political parties.

Conservative groups emboldened by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision have made Montana the center of the fight over many campaign finance restrictions.

The groups, led by the Washington D.C.-based American Tradition Partnership, have convinced Lovell, of Helena, to strike other laws, such as a ban on knowingly false statements in certain advertisements.

The U.S. Supreme Court also tossed the state's century-old, voter-approved ban on independent corporate political spending in state races.

That decision prompted a new ballot initiative that would direct state leaders to seek a constitutional amendment undermining the high court's decision.

The attorney general's office argues that American Tradition Partnership is a shadowy group which is illegally trying to conceal its political spending, perhaps with money received from foreign corporations. The state is seeking sanctions against the conservative group in a separate court case.