- Associated Press - Thursday, May 26, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - A judge reinstated voter-approved limits on the amount of cash Montana political parties can give to candidates on Thursday, nine days after he struck down those limits as unconstitutionally low and less than two weeks before Montana’s primary elections.

U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled last week that the low campaign contribution limits for political parties, individuals and political committees set by a voter-approved initiative in 1994 restricted speech and did not allow candidates to effectively campaign. As a result, state officials re-imposed the higher limits that were in place for individuals and political committees before 1994.

However, the pre-1994 limits on political parties were lower than those approved by voters that year. Enforcing those lower limits would worsen the situation for the political parties that challenged the caps and put the state in the position of enforcing another unconstitutional law, the judge wrote in his order.

“The public’s interest lies in having First Amendment protections honored,” Lovell wrote. “While neither the pre-1994 political party limits nor the political party limits declared unconstitutional by the undersigned last week fully comport with those protections, the higher, later limit certainly comes closer to doing so.”

The ruling means the maximum political parties and county party central committees can donate will continue to range from $850 to state House candidates to $23,350 to gubernatorial candidates per election. Before the 1994 initiative, the political party limits ranged from $300 to $8,000.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl previously said that he could not impose the lower, pre-1994 limits. Attorneys for the state who requested the partial stay of Lovell’s ruling said with neither limit imposed, political parties could exploit the loophole to give unlimited amounts of cash to candidates.

“I’m grateful for the order,” Motl said. “It adds stability to the 2016 elections.”

No political party committees have made contributions over either limit in the nine days between Lovell’s two orders, Motl said.

The political parties, committees, individuals and businesses who sued to invalidate the contribution limits had opposed the state’s request to stay Lovell’s ruling for political parties. Their attorney, Anita Milanovich, said Thursday that she understood why Lovell chose to impose the higher limits rather than the lower limits.

“If the commissioner still wants to stand by his position that he doesn’t want to enforce either limit, he is free to do that and our clients wouldn’t object,” Milanovich said.

Lovell’s stay is in effect while the state appeals his ruling to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

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