Montana Candidate Contribution Limits Ruled Unconstitutional

Posted by James Madison CenterMay 18, 20160 Comments

Wednesday, May 18, 2016

Contact: James Bopp, Jr.
Phone 812-232-2434; Fax 812-235-3685; [email protected]

 Montana Candidate Contribution Limits Ruled Unconstitutional

            Yesterday, a federal district court ruled that Montana candidate contribution limits were unconstitutional and enjoined state officials from enforcing them.  The limits, adopted in 1994, are very low, with a $170 cap on individual contributions and a $800 maximum from all political parties to any one legislative candidate.  Because they are so low, the limits make it very hard for newcomers to run for office and for candidates to reach voters with their message. 

            In 2011, Doug Lair and several donors challenged these candidate contribution limits because they wanted to give more than the limits to candidates who supported their point of view.  And the Lake and Beaverhead County Republican Parties also challenged the political party limits because they couldn't contribute anything to candidates who had already received the maximum amount from other political parties. After 5 years of litigation, these plaintiffs have finally won.

            The court struck the limits because of three constitutional concerns: 1) that there was no evidence of quid pro quo corruption through contributions in any amount in Montana since at least the 1990s, 2) that the purpose of the adoption of the 1994 limits were to reduce overall campaign spending, an unconstitutional purpose, and 3) that the limits had left candidate campaigns underfunded.

            First, the court looked at whether the low contribution limits were necessary to prevent bribery-type exchanges for campaign contributions—“quid pro quo corruption.” The court evaluated examples of alleged “quid pro quo corruption” in Montana. For example, Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl claimed that nine candidates that were supported by a Right to Work organization in 2010 engaged in bribery-type arrangements. The court found, however, that, since the 2010 candidates did not receive support until after they stated their voting positions and that their positions were not influenced by the offer of support, there was not quid pro quo corruption.

            Second, the court looked specifically at the reason that the 1994 limits were changed from the much higher previous limits, in place since 1979. The court found that the 1994 limits were adopted to reduce campaign spending, not to reduce “quid pro quo corruption” as required by the Citizens United decision.

            Last, the court found that candidates could not adequately fund their campaigns. The effect was to benefit incumbents who already have name recognition and reduce the number of otherwise competitive campaigns.

            For these reasons, the court struck down the limits, encouraging Montana's 2017 legislature to adopt new limits that will meet these three concerns.

            “Given its history with the Copper barons in the early 1900s, it makes sense that Montana is sensitive to concerns about bribery and bought elections,” said James Bopp, Jr., attorney for the plaintiffs. “However, Montanans should be heartened that their legislators are by all accounts not corruptible—perhaps because of Montana's history.” Mr. Bopp states, “What is troublesome, however, is that, under these low limits, these same candidates cannot raise enough money to adequately reach voters and get their message out.” “Furthermore, when limits are so low, people give their money to independent advocacy groups instead of the candidate,” says Bopp, “thereby diverting money to special interests who then have a greater impact on an election. Montana has therefore created the very thing they call a problem.”

            The case is Lair v. Motl, 6:12-cv-12. A copy of the court decision can be found here.

James Bopp, Jr. has a national constitutional law practice with The Bopp Law Firm, PC.


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