HELENA — The U.S. Supreme Court has declined to hear Montana’s appeal of a federal court decision that struck down the state law banning political parties from endorsing nonpartisan judicial candidates.
The high court’s decision, issued without comment Monday, means the Montana ban is unconstitutional and that political parties can endorse judicial candidates here and publicize those endorsements.
“The U.S. Supreme Court is simply ordering Montana to follow the same law regarding judicial elections that the other 49 states follow,” said Matthew Monforton, the Bozeman attorney representing the Sanders County Republican Central Committee, which brought the lawsuit challenging the ban.
Attorney General Tim Fox had asked the U.S. Supreme Court to hear an appeal of the August 2013 decision by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals voiding the Montana law.
The state said the appeals court made a rushed decision based on an incomplete record. It asked the Supreme Court to void that ruling and send the case back to the lower courts to develop a record “to guide judicial decision-making regarding constitutional issues of fundamental importance to the people of Montana.”
On Tuesday, John Barnes, a spokesman for Fox, said Fox is concerned about a “growing trend of federal courts invalidating any state law without allowing states to defend them.”
Fox also argued to the Supreme Court that Montana has a compelling interest in maintaining an independent, impartial and nonpartisan judiciary, and that allowing political parties to make endorsements would turn judicial elections into partisan affairs.
Monforton disagreed Tuesday: “The idea that Montana judicial elections will be harmed by First Amendment principles that apply in the other states is ridiculous.”
The Sanders County Republican Central Committee challenged the ban in May 2012, saying it wanted to endorse nonpartisan candidates running for the Montana Supreme Court and the 20th Judicial District that year.
In its lawsuit, the group said it was concerned about “the increasing intrusion by left-leaning judges into areas of policy traditionally reserved to the Legislature,” and that it should be able to publicly identify and endorse judicial candidates it felt would counter that trend.
The group argued that Montana’s ban on political party endorsements of judicial candidates violated free-speech rights.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena initially ruled against the Republican group, saying Montana had a right to set the rules for its own judicial elections and keep them nonpartisan.
The Sanders County group appealed to the 9th Circuit Court, which overruled Lovell and said the endorsement ban violated the First Amendment right to free speech.
While the appeals court struck down Montana’s ban on political party endorsements in judicial races, it left intact the state ban on political parties giving money to judicial candidates’ campaign funds.
The U.S. Supreme Court agrees to hear only a tiny fraction of the requested appeals from lower court rulings. The Montana case was one of nearly 500 that the court on Monday declined to hear, without comment.