HELENA — Federal courts are being asked to decide whether Montana’s contribution limits for political candidates should be struck down in the closing days of this campaign and whether Republican governor candidate Rick Hill can keep a disputed $500,000 donation.
American Tradition Partnership and other conservative groups, individuals and businesses on Thursday asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and overturn Montana’s contribution limits before the Nov. 6 election. Donors should be able to “exercise their First Amendment rights” and give however much they want to candidates, the legal document said.
In a petition to Justice Anthony Kennedy, they asked the court to strike down the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling Oct. 9 that stayed the Oct. 3 decision by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena that struck down Montana’s contribution limits as unconstitutional. As a result, Montana’s limits are back in place.
It was during that six-day period where the limits were not in effect that the Montana Republican Party donated $500,000 to Hill. The limits allow a political party to give a candidate only $22,600 during an election, and the GOP had already donated that much to Hill.
In a development Friday, Hill’s lawyer transferred to U.S. District Court in Helena the lawsuit filed in state District Court Thursday by Hill’s opponent, Attorney General Steve Bullock. In the state lawsuit, Bullock contended that the $500,000 contribution to Hill was illegal and asked the court to order Hill to return it.
Hill argued that the donation was legal because it was made during the period after Lovell threw out Montana’s contribution limits and before the federal appeals court restored them.
With the Nov. 6 election less than three weeks away, the flurry of court activity involving contributions is unprecedented in Montana elections, at least over the past 40 years.
This year, a number of longstanding Montana election laws have been overturned by federal courts, citing the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court Citizens United decision. That ruling removed restrictions and allowed corporations and unions to give money without previous restrictions.
The latest legal actions sparked comments from the governor campaigns and others.
Bullock, whose office will defend the state’s case if the U.S. Supreme Court accepts it, said he doesn’t believe the petition by American Tradition Partnership will succeed.
“Whoever American Tradition Partnership is, they are trying every angle to dismantle Montana’s campaign laws and throw the doors wide open to enormous sums of anonymous, out-of-state money.” Bullock said. “As attorney general, I will continue the fight to keep our elections clean and fair."
James Bopp, the Terre Haute, Ind., lawyer representing American Tradition Partnership and others, asked the U.S. Supreme Court to overturn the circuit court ruling that stayed Lovell’s decision.
“But most critically, the resulting stay allows the First Amendment speech rights of Montanans to continue to be chilled and burdened during this crucial election season,” Bopp’s application to Kennedy said.
In the other case, Hill’s campaign defended sending the Bullock lawsuit to federal court, while Bullock’s campaign was critical.
“This issue belongs in federal court, because it comes from a federal judge’s decision on which both Democrats and Republicans relied,” said Hill’s campaign manager, Brock Lowrance. “Federal court is the proper place for this case, and that is why we sent it there.”
Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney representing Hill and his campaign, said he filed a “notice of removal” Friday to take the case from state District Court in Helena to the U.S. District Court in Helena.
“Federal law automatically divests state judges of jurisdiction once a notice of removal is filed,” Monforton said. “This matter will be litigated in the federal courts, and we anticipate prevailing because the contributions accepted by the Hill campaign between Oct. 3 and Oct. 9 were federally authorized contributions. Federal law controls this matter.”
The state Republican Party donated $500,000 to Hill’s campaign on Oct. 4
Bullock’s campaign manager, Kevin O’Brien, said Hill knows the donation was illegal, which is why his campaign moved the case to federal court.
“It’s clear that even Congressman Hill knows this $500,000 contribution was illegal because if he didn’t, he would be proud to defend his actions to a Montana judge, instead of running to a federal court,” O’Brien said.
Also Friday, the Bullock campaign released a statement from Republican Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger calling on Hill to return the $500,000.
“This is an unprecedented step by Congressman Hill to allow our elections to be corrupted at the average citizen’s expense,” Bohlinger said.
The lieutenant governor, elected with Democratic Gov. Brian Schweitzer, became the first person to sign an online petition demanding that Hill return the money at this website: GiveItBackRick.com.