HELENA — A federal judge on Friday blocked more Montana campaign finance laws amid an ongoing battle over political spending restrictions, and ruled that corporations are indeed allowed to donate to some political action committees.
Montana officials are fighting multiple attacks aimed at undoing state restrictions. The legal battles follow a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United that grants free-speech rights to corporations.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell struck down a state ban on knowingly false statements in political attacks in election materials, a law aimed at preventing misrepresentation of a state candidate's record. He also blocked a requirement that political attacks disclose relevant voting records
The judge also makes clear that a ruling last week by the U.S. Supreme Court indeed allows corporate donations to political action committees that spend only on independent expenditures. The impact of that ruling was not immediately clear since Montana does not currently establish any PACs restricted from donating directly to individual candidates.
But the federal judge says a full trial will look at requests from Virginia-based American Tradition Partnership to toss out individual, political party and PAC contribution limits. The conservative group will have to prove the limits are too low to allow effective campaigning.
And the judge rejected a request to let corporations make direct contributions to candidates. He said that is a clarification of past U.S. Supreme Court decisions that allowed corporate political spending on third-party campaigns for or against a candidate — as long as the money doesn't directly go to a political candidate's campaign coffers.
Both sides declared some victory out of the split initial ruling.
"I'm pleased that the order preserves two key aspects of Montana's campaign finance laws — contribution limits and our prohibition on direct corporate contributions to campaigns. At the same time, I look forward to showing at trial how Montana's laws governing truthful campaigning are needed and fulfill their purpose," said Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock.
Last week, the U.S. Supreme Court overruled the state Supreme Court and tossed out the state's century-old ban on corporations spending from their general treasury on third-party political advertising.
That case largely hinges on the Citizens United case. Montana is the only state so far trying to preserve any such ban in the face of that 2010 ruling. The U.S. Supreme Court will take briefs, and perhaps oral arguments, before making a final decision on the matter sometime later this year.
American Tradition Partnership, formerly known as Western Tradition Partnership, is spearheading much of the effort. It has a third case in state court that fights Montana's ability to sanction it for failing to file campaign finance disclosure forms.
"Make no mistake, this isn't just one lawsuit filed in one court, it's a concerted effort by out-of-state corporations to dismantle our election laws and undermine the democratic process in Montana," Bullock said.
ATP is joined in the federal case by the Montana Right to Life Association, Lake County Republican Central Committee, Beaverhead County Republican Central Committee and other conservative groups.
Lawyer Jim Brown said the group is pleased that the disclosure laws have been tossed out as unconstitutionally vague, and that it will be allowed to mount an argument that the contribution limits are unconstitutional.
"This is great. We are very, very pleased with this ruling," he said. "We consider this a tremendous ruling for vindicating First Amendment rights in Montana."