HELENA — American Tradition Partnership and other parties can’t recover nearly $140,000 in attorney fees from the state after successfully suing to strike down the 1912 Corrupt Practices Act, the Montana Supreme Court has ruled.
In a 6-1 decision last week, the Supreme Court upheld the decision of District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock of Helena, who had denied the request for the state to pay their attorney fees.
Seeking the fees were American Tradition Partnership, a Washington, D.C., group formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership; Champion Painting Inc., of Bozeman; and Montana Shooting Sports Association, based in Missoula.
They challenged Montana’s voter-passed 1912 law that prohibited corporations from making independent expenditures for or against political candidates, citing the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens United vs. FEC decision. Sherlock agreed and struck down the state law but refused to grant attorney fees.
The Montana Supreme Court, however, reversed Sherlock in December 2011 in a 5-2 decision and upheld the Montana law.
American Tradition Partnership and the others appealed that ruling to the U.S. Supreme Court. In June, the nation’s highest court, in a 5-4 decision, summarily reversed the Montana Supreme Court and struck down the state law.
The groups argued that they were entitled to have the state reimburse them for the legal fees under the “private attorney general doctrine.” Under that doctrine, private parties in lawsuits can argue for reimbursement of their legal fees in cases in which they sue to vindicate important constitutional rights that the government has failed to enforce.
ATP and the others argued they also were entitled to legal fees under Montana’s Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act.
Justice Beth Baker, writing for the majority, said the court could not conclude that “equitable consideration required it to award fees against the state under either the Uniform Declaratory Judgments Act or the private attorney general doctrine.”
She noted that District Judge Sherlock didn’t abuse his discretion in determining that the state had mounted a good-faith defense of the Corrupt Practices Act.
“While the attorney general did not prevail, it is difficult to conclude that his arguments were frivolous when five members of this court were convinced of their merit,” Baker wrote. “”In the final analysis, even though ATP vindicated principles of constitutional magnitude, the state’s defense also was grounded in constitutional principles and in an effort to enforce interests the executive deemed equally significant to its citizens.”
Justice James Nelson dissented, saying the corporations should have been awarded legal fees under the private attorney general doctrine.
The lawyer representing ATP was Margot B. Ogburn, of Bozeman.