- Associated Press - Tuesday, January 14, 2014

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana officials have filed a petition with the U.S. Supreme Court asking it to review and reverse a lower court’s ruling that allows political parties to endorse nonpartisan candidates in the state’s judicial elections.

Attorney General Tim Fox and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl filed the petition Monday, saying the constitutional issues are of “extreme and fundamental importance” to states’ right to decide how judicial elections are held.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled last year that Montana’s ban on party endorsements in judicial elections is an unconstitutional violation of free speech.

“The Ninth Circuit hurried to declare Montana’s ban on political party endorsements and expenditures in nonpartisan judicial elections a facially unconstitutional violation of the First Amendment. It accomplished this by ignoring the constitutional underpinnings supporting the state’s sovereign authority to institute nonpartisan judicial elections,” the petition read.

The Supreme Court rarely accepts petitions to review lower-court rulings. There is no timeline for the court to decide whether to take up the Montana case.

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.

Sanders County GOP committee attorney Matthew Monforton told Lee Newspapers of Montana that he does not believe the Supreme Court will “waste its time on the case.”

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.

That ruling made clear that First Amendment rights apply to Montana’s ban on partisan judicial endorsements, according to the 9th Circuit panel of judges.