Lair v. Motl
The first challenge to Montana’s contribution limits, which were passed by ballot initiative in 1994, was resolved more than a decade ago in Montana Right to Life Ass’n v. Eddleman. The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld the limits at that time, relying on two premises, both well-established under governing Supreme Court case law: 1) A limit on the amount of money a person can contribute to a candidate is not a significant restraint on political speech because it still permits symbolic expression of support, and 2) contribution limits are constitutional provided they do not prevent candidates from amassing the resources they need to run an effective campaign.
In 2012, Montana’s contribution limits were again challenged as unconstitutionally “low,” on the theory that the Supreme Court’s recent campaign finance decisions had undermined the holding in Eddleman approving the limits. A federal district court judge in Montana struck down the limits, but the Ninth Circuit disagreed with the court’s analysis and sent the case back to the lower court. The appellate panel was concerned that Eddleman improperly focused on whether Montana’s contribution limits were tailored to advance the broad governmental interest in “combatting improper influence,” rather than to the narrower interest in preventing quid pro quo corruption recognized in recent Supreme Court decisions such as Citizens United.
In May 2016, the district court again struck down Montana’s contribution limits — this time, not because the court deemed the limits too low, but based on the extraordinary conclusion that “corruption is nearly absent” in Montana, so the state has no valid interest in the limits designed to prevent it. That decision is now on appeal to the 9th Circuit.
What’s at Stake
This lawsuit, like its past and ongoing counterparts in other states, is part of a larger legal strategy to undermine all campaign finance laws. Montana’s contribution limits, like those of the 37 other states that have similar controls, are designed to protect the integrity of the democratic process. Contribution limits are one of the last remaining tools states can use to promote healthy democracy — because limiting direct contributions to candidates has always been upheld as a vital and constitutional way to prevent quid pro quo corruption and its appearance. Even the Roberts Court has recognized as much.
But the Montana court called into question the very validity of the anti-corruption interests underlying contribution limits and created an evidentiary standard for substantiating those interests that is nearly impossible to clear. As we argue in our friend-of-the-court brief, its reasoning jeopardizes similar limits across the country, and cannot be sustained.