In a span of four months, three rulings by courts in Montana have upended political laws designed to reduce the influence of money in politics.
A 1912 law prohibiting corporations from contributing to candidates was overturned. That was followed by a 1935 law prohibiting political parties from endorsing judicial candidates. A more recent 1994 law limiting campaign contributions also fell victim to a court’s ruling. The 1994 limited individual contributions to the governor’s race to $630, which is where the controversy has reached its peak.
Prior to these court rulings, Montana possessed one of the nation’s most comprehensive political spending laws. For a better part of a century, these laws have kept Montana politics competitive and relatively free of big money influence. That has now changed.
On October 3, U.S. District Court Judge Charles Lovell struck down the 1994 law. Six days later the U.S. Circuit of Appeals reinstated the law. Six days would not seem to amount to much, but that short time period has caused an enormous legal controversy.
The day after the ruling, the Republican Governors Association gave $500,000 to gubernatorial candidate Rep. Rick Hill. $500,000 is a huge sum for the small population of Montana. It gave Hill a potent edge against his opponent. The rapid contribution to Hill’s campaign suggests that the Republican Party was anticipating a favorable ruling. It is no coincidence that a conservative group from Washington, D.C., litigated the original lawsuit against Montana’s spending limit law. They argued that the contribution limits were so low that candidates had to appeal to special interest groups for the funds to run a campaign.
The irony is that that with the law overturned the first sizable contribution would come from a special interest group –- the Republican Governor’s Association. It is a good bet that the litigants didn’t believe their own arguments but were only trying to get an edge in a political campaign.
Hills’ opponent, Attorney General Steve Bullock, petitioned the court for a temporary restraining order to bar Hill from spending the money. Bullock claimed that political parties could only spend $22,600 in the gubernatorial race. He argued that applies for the entire campaign from start to finish.
Hill countered that he received the $500,000 during the six days that the law was overturned.
State District Judge Kathy Seeley granted the restraining order until she could make a permanent decision.
That caused Hill’s campaign to make sudden strategic changes. He pulled his television ads and vowed to lend his campaign $100,000 until the $500,000 is cleared by the court. Hill also turned back to Judge Lovell, asking him to rescind Seeley’s order.
Further complicating the situation are Republican complaints that Seely should have removed herself from the case since her recent history of political contribution only includes Democrats.
No word has come out if Lovell has a history of only contributing to Republican causes, but Hill is not asking him to recuse himself.
It has also been suggested that if Hill is elected and found to have violated the campaign spending laws then a special election might be required to do over the gubernatorial race. However this is settled, it doesn’t sound like the squabbling in the Montana governor’s race is going to end on November 6.
This is another incident were unrestricted money poured into a campaign. The Supreme Court’s Citizens United ruling has allowed special interest groups to spend freely and made political campaigns more of a spending contest than a forum over issues. Unfortunately, Montana’s attempt to keep money from flooding its campaigns is a victim of Citizens United. Whatever happens with this election, it appears that Montana is headed towards a long struggle over its campaign financing laws.