HELENA — A federal judge is considering a request by state attorneys to issue a stay on part of his ruling last week that invalidated campaign contribution limits approved by Montana voters in 1994.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell peppered Montana Department of Justice lawyers with questions during a hearing Tuesday, but he did not make an immediate ruling.
Last week, Lovell ruled for the second time in four years that Montana's campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional.
As a result, state officials reinstated contribution rules in place prior to the initiative. That means higher contribution limits for individuals and political action committees, but it also means political parties can contribute unlimited amounts of money to campaigns.
State attorneys argue that lifting limits on parties could allow individuals and PACs to circumvent limits placed on them.
During the hearing, Lovell sharply questioned the state's attorneys and at times suggested he was unconvinced by their arguments.
After being reminded by Montana Assistant Attorney General Matthew Cochenour that the state on Tuesday was not arguing the merits of whether campaign contribution limits were unconstitutional for the purposes of requesting a stay, Lovell minced no words: "I believe they are unconstitutional. Why should I grant you a stay?"
The state's case for a stay rests partly on its belief that it will prevail on appeal with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals and that unlimited party money could disrupt the current election cycle, two weeks before the June 7 primary.
"A stay in this case would be in the public interest," Cochenour told the court.
The attorney for the group of conservative activists, corporations and political organizations that challenged Montana's limits as being unconstitutionally low argued that there was no reason for re-imposing contribution limits on political parties, asserting as Lovell did in his May 17 ruling that Montana officials failed to prove that the limits combat corruption or the appearance of it.
"Political parties cannot corrupt their own candidates," said the group's attorney, Anita Milanovich, adding that last week's ruling did not do away with campaign reporting rules.
She said there was no evidence presented by the state to show that political parties were attempting to corrupt the electoral process.
Lovell had previously struck down Montana's contribution limits in state elections as being too low for candidates to effectively campaign. The 9th Circuit court reinstated the limits a little over a week later in October 2012 and ordered Lovell to re-examine the issue based on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizen's United case, which required states to prove their limits were stopping an exchange of money for political favors.