The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals this week upheld the right of the voters of Montana to protect themselves against political corruption.
In a 2-1 ruling, the court upheld a 1984 voter initiative that generally lowered the individual and PAC limits on contributions to Montana candidates’ campaigns while raising the amounts political parties may give to a candidate. The voter-enacted law has since been updated by the Legislature and the dollar limits are now indexed to inflation.
Yet the plaintiffs, led by American Tradition Partnership and Republican Central Committees in Lake and Beaverhead counties, contend that contribution limits are too low.
The case was filed in 2011. In May 2016, three weeks before the statewide primary election, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Montana ruled that Montana’s contributions limits were unconstitutionally low. His ruling sent state officials scrambling and ultimately caused the state to revert to statutory campaign contribution limits that were in place before the voter initiative was passed.
As of Tuesday, the voter-approved law was back in force.
Lovell concluded that because attempts at corruption had not succeeded in getting the desired legislation, there was no proof that the anti-corruption law is needed. The Circuit Court disagreed, saying that the state only had to show “the risk of actual or perceived quid pro quo corruption is not illusory.”
Circuit Judge Raymond Fisher of California wrote the majority opinion joined by Judge Mary Murguia of Arizona, with Judge Carlos Bea of California dissenting. The majority opinion said that to comply with Supreme Court rulings, the Montana law had to be narrowly drawn to prevent quid pro quo corruption or the appearance of such corruption. The majority opinion cited evidence of attempts to influence Montana legislators:
- A letter from a former state senator that read: “Dear fellow Republicans. Please destroy this after reading. Why? Because the Life Underwriters Association in Montana is one of the larger Political Action Committees in the state, and I don’t want the Demo’s to know about it! In the last election they gave $8,000 to state candidates … Of this $8,000 — Republicans got $7,600 — you probably got something from them. This bill is important to the underwriters and I have been able to keep the contributions coming our way. In 1983, the PAC will be $15,000. Let’s keep it in our camp.”
- A state senator’s statement during the 2009 Legislature that National Right to Work promised to contribute at least $100,000 to elect Republican majorities in the next election if he and his colleagues introduced and voted for a right-to-work bill in the 2011 legislative session.
- A state court finding that two 2010 state legislative candidates violated state election laws by accepting large contributions from an organization that bragged the candidates it supported “rode into office in 100 percent support” of the organization’s agenda.
- Testimony from Montana candidates that the law allowed them to adequately fund their campaigns.
- Testimony from candidates who said the contribution limits were too low, yet most of their donors gave less than the maximum and relatively few maxed out their donations.
“Even if the ‘destroy after reading letter’ did not result in the successful purchase of a block of votes in exchange for contributions, it certainly shows that the threat of such arrangements is non-illusory,” the appeals court said.
Tuesday’s Circuit Court ruling won’t be the end of this case. Jim Bopp of Indiana, the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, told the Associated Press he will seek either a rehearing by all the 9th Circuit judges or appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court. The Circuit Court rarely hears cases en banc and the U.S. Supreme Court has not forbidden states from limiting the amount of direct campaign contributions to candidates. Tuesday’s Circuit Court decision could — and should — stand.