HELENA — Back-and-forth court decisions striking and reinstating Montana laws that regulate campaign contributions have set this election cycle roiling, resulting in candidates showered by unexpected cash and a flurry of legal challenges ahead of Election Day.
Conservative groups and businesses seeking to toss out the state's campaign contribution limits before the Nov. 6 election have asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene.
Meanwhile, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill wants to defend his acceptance of a $500,000 campaign contribution before the same federal court that earlier this month said the contribution limits are unconstitutionally low.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled on Oct. 3 the state's limits are too low to allow effective campaigning and ordered Montana not to enforce them. Six days later, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Lovell's ruling pending the appeal, which keeps the limits in place through the election.
Attorney James Bopp wrote in his Thursday application to Justice Anthony Kennedy that leaving the contribution limits in place prevents his clients from engaging in political speech before the election. Bopp, who is representing 12 plaintiffs led by the conservative group American Tradition Partnership, asked Kennedy to lift the appellate court's stay.
"This request would preserve the First Amendment rights of applicants and other Montana contributors to engage in political speech during the 2012 election," Bopp wrote.
There is no deadline for Kennedy to act on the request. Kennedy himself can intervene, otherwise he can take it to the whole court, ask for a response from the state or ignore the request.
American Tradition Partnership has sought to throw out various Montana campaign laws through multiple lawsuits. Recently, Bopp represented the group earlier this year when the U.S. Supreme Court struck down another state law limiting corporate campaign spending.
Steve Bullock is both a defendant in the corporate contributions case as Montana's attorney general and the plaintiff in the case against Hill as the Democratic nominee for governor.
Bullock's office released a statement attributed to the attorney general that said he doesn't believe the application with the Supreme Court has merit.
"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," the statement said.
Bullock is in a close race against Hill, a former congressman. Two days after Lovell's ruling tossing out the contribution limits, the Montana Republican Party made a $500,000 donation to Hill.
Bullock argues that Hill should not be allowed to keep the donation now that the 9th Circuit has blocked Lovell's ruling. Hill says the donation was legal because there were no limits in place at the time.
Hill attorney Matthew Monforton of Bozeman filed notice Friday he wants to move lawsuit from state court to U.S. District Court.
Monforton writes the federal court is the proper place to decide the dispute because that is the court that blocked Montana's campaign contribution limits.
The case has not yet been assigned to a federal judge.
Bullock's campaign responded that Hill's taking the case to federal court is a sign the former congressman knew the contribution was illegal.
"If he didn't, he would be proud to defend his actions to a Montana judge, instead of running to a federal court," campaign manager Kevin O'Brien said.
Under the disputed law, a candidate for governor is limited to accepting a maximum of $22,600 from all political party committees. An individual can only donate up to $630 to a gubernatorial candidate. Other state candidates have lower limits.