HELENA — A broad legal challenge to Montana's campaign finance laws narrowed Wednesday to focus on corporate contributions to political committees, with conservative groups telling a federal judge that a state ban on such contributions amounts to a restriction on free speech.
State attorneys asked U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell to reject the groups' request that the judge remove the ban on those corporate contributions, saying the century-old law is still needed to keep corrupting influences out of elections.
"It's a little bit different from Marcus Daly and the Copper Kings, but those kinds of concerns still exist," Assistant Attorney General Michael Black said.
Wednesday's arguments represented just a portion of the broad challenge to Montana's campaign-finance laws being waged by the group of corporations, political committees and other conservative organizations led by the Virginia-based American Tradition Partnership.
They are asking Lovell to toss individual, political party and political-action committee contribution limits in a case they are comparing to the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that granted free-speech rights to corporations.
The nation's high court in February temporarily blocked Montana's ban on corporate spending on third-party political advertising that appears to be at odds with the Citizens United decision. The justices put the ban on hold while they consider that case, which also was brought by the American Tradition Partnership.
The partnership and other plaintiffs in the district court case are now asking Lovell to expand the Supreme Court's hold to allow more money to flow to their favored issues and candidates in time for the June 5 primary.
Lovell indicated through questions to both sides that he is considering halting some of the proceedings until the Supreme Court decides the case before it, a move that plaintiffs' attorney Noel Johnson said he would oppose because of the pending elections.
Lovell did not make an immediate decision, saying he would take the arguments under advisement.
At issue Wednesday was Montana's ban on corporations from making contributions to political committees that make independent expenditures, that is, money spent specifically to support or oppose a candidate or issue.
Lovell previously ruled that the U.S. Supreme Court's stay of Montana's corporate spending ban also applies to corporate donations to committees. Johnson argued that a separate injunction is still needed to ensure corporations can donate to political action committees and that committees can receive those donations.
The plaintiffs also asked Lovell to reject the state's ban on knowingly false statements in political attacks and a law requiring that political attacks disclose relevant voting records.
Those laws were meant to protect candidates against defamation or a misrepresentation of their record, but Lovell earlier this year temporarily blocked those regulations, saying they raise constitutional questions.
The plaintiffs want that injunction to become a permanent ban. Johnson said the laws are too vague and could give political opponents the opportunity to chill speech by claiming an infraction, and the state has not shown that a corporate contribution of even $1 presents a risk of corruption that is worth a complete ban.
Black told Lovell that the laws are meant to protect the integrity of Montana's electoral process and the state should be able to keep false speech or misrepresented voting records out of that process. The judge could remove the portions that he rules unconstitutional, but should leave the rest intact, the assistant attorney general said.
"Speech that is defamatory is not constitutionally protected," Black said. "What we're talking about here is knowingly false speech or intentional disregard."