On Tuesday, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit sent a challenge to Montana’s campaign contribution limits back to a federal trial court for another look. This could be good news or bad news; it’s too soon to tell.
Montana’s campaign contribution limits, passed by ballot initiative in 1994, are among the lowest in the nation, ranging from $170 per election for state House, to $650 for the governor’s race. Most people in Montana (one of the poorest states in the country) don’t have anywhere near $170 (let alone $650) to give to politicians, and very few contribute the maximum. The contribution limits have helped prevent Montana elections from spinning out of control and limit the worst violations of voter equality.
More than a decade ago, big donors challenged these limits under the First Amendment, saying they were unconstitutionally low. But the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld the limits in 2003 in Montana Right to Life Ass’n v. Eddleman. In 2012, the challengers came back, arguing that intervening Supreme Court decisions, like Randall v. Sorrell (striking down Vermont’s contribution limits as too low), Citizens United (striking down a ban on corporate political spending), and (as the case dragged on) McCutcheon v. FEC (striking down total limits on how much any one person could contribute across all elections) mean that Montana’s limits need to be re-evaluated.
A federal judge in Montana agreed. Here’s where it gets technical. Under the Supreme Court’s 1976 Buckley v. Valeodecision, campaign contribution limits must be “closely drawn” to a “sufficiently important interest.” The judge accepted that Montana had a “sufficiently important interest,” but said the limits weren’t “closely drawn” to that interest. In addressing the “closely drawn” question, he used a complex analysis developed by Justice Breyer in Randall that didn’t garner the agreement of a majority of justices. Montana appealed the decision, and Free Speech For People filed an amicus brief arguing that Montana has an important interest in limiting violations of the “one person, one vote” rule and the federal Voting Rights Act.
The Ninth Circuit’s decision
Yesterday, a three-judge panel of the Ninth Circuit returned the case to the Montana judge yesterday with bad news, okay news, and good news, which combine for an uncertain outcome.
- Bad news: The panel said that it couldn’t figure out which “important state interest” the district judge had meant, but that in any event, after Citizens United, the only acceptable interest is prevention of “quid pro quo” corruption or its appearance. (We disagree, of course.)
- Okay news: The panel sent the case back to the district judge to make a new decision based on quid pro quo corruption, but said Montana should be allowed to supply new evidence specifically regarding that interest. That might be tough, because Montana has had low contribution limits for a long time. But it’s possible. And the court rejected the plaintiffs’ request to just decide the matter right there and then.
- Good news: The panel said that judges in the Ninth Circuit should not adopt Justice Breyer’s stringent “closely drawn” methodology, since it did not receive a majority of votes on the Supreme Court.
It’s hard to tell. The next steps will be in the federal district court in Montana. And it will eventually come back to the court of appeals—in fact, probably before these very same judges. Free Speech For People will continue to monitor the case and participate as a friend of the court as appropriate.