- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 18, 2016

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - For a second time in four years, a federal judge has ruled that Montana’s campaign contribution limits are unconstitutional - a decision that could open the way for a flood of money from political parties just three weeks before the June 7 state primary.

Tuesday’s ruling by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell was a clear setback for state Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who has defended the strict limits that voters enacted in 1994.

Lovell said Montana officials did not prove that the limits “further the important state interest of combating quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.”

Motl urged restraint by political parties that can now contribute unlimited amounts of cash to candidates.

Lovell expressed no opinion on what contributions should be for individuals and political action committees and left the question to the Montana attorney general.

After conferring with Attorney General Tim Fox, Motl said he was reinstating limits that were in place prior to the initiative, with a slight adjustment for inflation.

The contribution limit for gubernatorial candidates will rise to $1,990, up from a maximum of $1,300. Other statewide offices will now have limits of $990 per election cycle, including primary and general elections, up from $640 for candidates in contested primary races.

Prior to Tuesday’s ruling, Montana’s individual contribution limits were $170 for legislative candidates, $320 for attorney general candidates and $650 for gubernatorial candidates per election.

The law also set limits on total contributions from political party committees to candidates that range from $850 per election for a state House candidate to $23,350 for a gubernatorial candidate. But Tuesday’s ruling did away with those limits.

Gov. Steve Bullock urged the attorney general to appeal the ruling by Lovell.

“This ruling is a travesty and a step back to the era of the Copper Kings,” Bullock said, referring to mining barons that once dominated state politics.

His opponent, Republican Greg Gianforte, said he would abide by the campaign limits that were in place and urged other candidates to follow suit.

Motl said an appeal is unlikely until after the November election to minimize further disruptions in the current election cycle. But he would not rule out seeking a stay on what he considered the most potentially damaging aspect of Tuesday’s ruling - unlimited contributions by political parties.

“I expect some reasonable self-control and respect for the people of Montana by the people involved in the political process,” Motl said. “I expect political parties to refrain until there is a reasonable way to approach political party contributions.”

The plaintiffs in the case include several political action committees and Republican central committees. They claimed the limits restricted freedom of speech, association and candidates’ ability to raise enough money to effectively campaign.

The Montana Democratic Party said it was “tremendously disappointed in Judge Lovell’s decision.”

Lovell had previously struck down Montana’s contribution limits in state elections as being too low for candidates to effectively campaign.

A federal appeals court reinstated the limits a little over a week later in October 2012, but by that time, the Montana Republican Party had donated $500,000 to gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill.

Hill spent the money, leading to a lawsuit and complaints of campaign violations that resulted in the final act of the campaign playing out in a courtroom before Bullock won the election.

The contribution limits case returned to Lovell’s courtroom last fall after the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the judge’s 2012 ruling and ordered him to re-examine the issue based on the U.S. Supreme Court’s 2010 Citizen’s United case, which required states to prove their limits were stopping an exchange of money for political favors.

___

This story has been corrected to reflect the year when voters enacted limits. It was 1994, not 2011.

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