Free Speech For People defended Montana’s campaign contribution limits through the filing of an amicus brief in October 2016 before the US Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.  Our brief emphasized the importance of low contribution limits in advancing political equality and creating a representative government. In a victory for the people of Montana and campaign finance reform, on October 23, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit upheld Montana’s campaign contribution limits. On January 14, 2019, the Supreme Court declined to review the case.

Key facts

Caption Lair v. Motl
Court United States Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit
Docket No. 16-35424
Status Ninth Circuit upheld campaign contribution limits; Supreme Court declined review
Plaintiffs Doug Lair
Defendant Jonathan Motl, Commissioner of Political Practices


The history of Lair v. Motl dates back to September 2011. Plaintiffs alleged that Montana’s campaign contribution limits were unconstitutionally low and violated the First Amendment. The case has a complex history as it went back and forth between the federal district court in Montana and the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit.

As the case wound its way back and forth between federal district court in Montana and the Ninth Circuit, a key question was the legal test that would be applied to Montana’s contribution limits, and in particular, which “government interests” justified these limits. We submitted, over the course of this case, three different amicus (“friend of the court”) briefs to the Ninth Circuit. We were joined on these various briefs by former Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson (a member of our Legal Advisory Committee), the Montana-based Indian Law Center, the Montana-based American Independent Business Alliance, and the American Sustainable Business Council.

At an early stage in the case, the district court struck down Montana’s campaign contribution limits (passed by the voters through a 1994 ballot initiative) as “too low.” After various interim appeals and delays, in May 2015 the Ninth Circuit issued a ruling sending the case back to the trial court for further review based on a narrow definition of “corruption.” The state requested an en banc rehearing of that ruling by a larger panel of Ninth Circuit judges.

In June 2015, we filed an amicus brief in support of the state’s request for an en banc rehearing. Our amicus brief argued that, under the Supreme Court’s precedent, “quid pro quo corruption” includes more than just bribery.

The case ultimately returned to the district court. On May 17, 2016, the federal district judge again struck down Montana’s campaign contribution limits as “too low.” The state reinstated the pre-1994 contribution limits.

On October 5, 2016, Free Speech For People filed another amicus brief to the Ninth Circuit, arguing that Montana’s campaign contribution limits should be upheld to protect the constitutional promise of political equality for all. We particularly emphasized that the Ninth Circuit itself had found that the state had violated the Voting Rights Act with respect to Montana’s Native American population, and those findings specifically noted that Native American poverty impeded their ability to fully participate in the political process. As we noted, Montana’s contribution limits helped minimize this effect.

On October 23, 2017, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit reversed the lower court ruling and upheld Montana’s campaign contribution limits, resulting in a victory for the people of Montana. On May 2, 2018, the Court of Appeals denied rehearing en banc.

On January 14, 2019, the U.S. Supreme Court denied the challengers’ petition for a writ of certiorari. That exhausts the plaintiffs’ appeals. Thus, the Ninth Circuit’s Lair decision, upholding Montana’s contribution limits, remains binding precedent in the Ninth Circuit, and persuasive authority throughout the country.

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