A federal appeals court gave Montana a second chance to save its political campaign contribution limits law on Tuesday.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ordered reconsideration of a first Amendment challenge to Montana’s contribution limits to political candidates saying a trial judge who overturned the law improperly interpreted circuit precedent in light of the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United case.
Citizens United allowed broad protection to donors and struck down campaign limits.
In a 2012 non-jury trial, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell concluded the limits were unconstitutional and permanently enjoined their enforcement.
But Judge Carlos Bea said a prior 9th Circuit decision was not abrogated by Citizens United but the high court “simply narrowed what constitutes ‘important state interest’” he said. The 9th Circuit precedent is otherwise “still sound,” he said.
In 2003, the 9th Circuit approved the Montana dollar limits on political campaign contributions. But on Tuesday a new panel said current case, brought by a variety of political candidates, conservative groups and anti-abortion advocates, must reconsider the law in light of the 2010 decision in Citizens United.
“Before Citizens United, 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. No longer so,” wrote Bea.
Bea offered a ray of hope for the state. Although Citizens United opened the door to unlimited campaign contributions, Bea said the trial judge did not consider the correct standard for an “important state interest” in imposing limits.
There are not factual findings by the trial court to allow for appellate review so the case goes back to the trial court.
“Montana should have an opportunity to develop a record aimed at the new ‘important state interest’ standard as well as the corresponding ‘closely drawn’ analysis,” he said in a footnote.
In 1994, Montana limited individual and political action committee contributions to $500 total for candidates for governor and lieutenant governor, and $250 to candidates for statewide office. Any other state public office was limited to $130.
Adjusted for inflation, those limits are currently $650, $320 and $170, according to the court.
A political party may give up to $18,000, which has risen under inflation to $23,350.
Individuals, PACs and party-affiliated committees challenged the restrictions as an unconstitutional burden on his freedom of speech.
Rick Hill, a 2012 candidate for governor, along with others intervened to support the challenge.
Case: Lair v. Bullock, No. 12-35809