Supreme Court denies judicial-endorsement petition

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BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) - The U.S. Supreme Court has denied a petition from Montana officials who wanted to revive the state’s ban on political parties endorsing judicial candidates.

Attorney General Tim Fox and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl filed the petition last October to restore a prohibition on endorsements dating to 1935. A 2012 ruling from the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals had said the endorsements are allowed under the free-speech rights of the First Amendment.

In denying the petition, justices let that ruling stand and declined to hear arguments in the case.

Fox’s office said in a statement Tuesday that he was concerned about federal courts invalidating state laws without giving states the chance to defend them. He did not comment directly on the outcome of the ruling.

The denial came on the heels of another petition turned down by the court this week in which Fox sought to restrict federal regulations of guns made and kept in Montana. The Supreme Court rarely accepts petitions to review lower-court rulings

Fox said that he “will consistently assert that evidentiary hearings are necessary before a federal court should consider the merits of attacks on Montana’s laws.”

The Supreme Court rarely accepts petitions to review lower-court rulings.

The case originated with a 2012 lawsuit filed against the state ban by the Sanders County Republican Central Committee, which said it wanted to endorse candidates who share its judicial philosophy.

The committee’s attorney, Matthew Monforton, said the Supreme Court’s action means Montana’s treatment of judicial candidates must conform to the 49 states in the U.S. that already allowed political-party endorsements. Monforton had waived the right to respond to Montana’s petition because he thought it had no merit.

“The First Amendment is still in effect throughout the country, including Montana. Montana was far afield in asserting otherwise,” he said.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell originally ruled against the Sanders County GOP, saying the county party’s objective was to transform the state’s judicial elections into “functionally partisan” contests.

The GOP committee appealed to the 9th Circuit, which said the endorsements the county party wants to make are protected speech under the Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizens’ United ruling.

The 9th Circuit ruling also allows spending by political parties on behalf of judicial candidates but no direct contributions.

Copyright 2014 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

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