People For the American Way

Montana Campaign Finance Caps Can Stay For Now

Voters in Montana can rest a little easier today, since the Supreme Court has – for now – let stand that state’s caps on how much money can be given to candidates in state elections. As SCOTUSBlog reported yesterday:

The Supreme Court, without even seeking the views of the state of Montana, refused on Tuesday to disturb the limits that the state has put on political contributions that can be made to candidates for state offices. The brief order, with no noted dissents, is here. The order rejected a challenge to those donor ceilings by state Republican committees, donors, or candidates who argued that they have had to curtail campaign activity to stay under the ceilings.

It’s important to note what this isn’t: This is not the Roberts Court letting up on its war against efforts to limit money in politics. The Justices that gave us Citizens United and other cases striking down campaign finance laws have shown no sign of letting up, as their recent doubling down on Citizens United made clear.

Back on October 3, in the case of Lair v. Murry, a federal judge in Montana struck down the state’s election campaign contribution limits as too low, saying they unconstitutionally prevent candidates from having enough resources to run effective campaigns. The Ninth Circuit granted Montana’s request for a stay pending an appeal, concluding that the state will likely win on the merits when it has a chance to argue that its law is constitutional. The circuit court also cited "the public’s substantial interest in the stability of its electoral system in the final weeks leading to an election."

This is one of several test cases put forward by right wing activist James Bopp designed to decimate reasonable limits on money in politics. Powerful interests are gung-ho to pour vast amounts of money into what are ordinarily relatively inexpensive elections. Strict caps help keep elected officials accountable to the voters, rather than to extremely wealthy funders.

Bopp asked the Supreme Court to reverse the Ninth Circuit’s decision, which would have meant the contribution caps would be unenforced while Montana’s appeal works its way through the courts.

The Supreme Court refused, in a typically one-sentence order without explanation. This would seem to signal that even the Roberts Court agrees that Montana has a strong case. Or maybe it just means that the Roberts Court is unwilling to topple a state’s campaign finance laws just a couple of weeks before an election.

These days, we’ll take what we can get.

This case may have reached its end, or the appeal on the merits may continue at the Ninth Circuit and back to the Supreme Court. Like any case on money in politics that reaches the Court in the future, the outcome is likely to be determined by whether the next Justices are nominated by Barack Obama or Mitt Romney. Something to keep in mind heading to Election Day.


campaign finance, Citizens United v. FEC, James Bopp, Romney Court, Supreme Court