WASHINGTON -- A federal appeals court struck down Montana's nonpartisan system of electing state judges on Monday, opening the door to party endorsements of judicial candidates for the first time in 77 years.
Montana currently makes it illegal for any political party to "endorse, contribute to, or make an expenditure to support or oppose a judicial candidate." This system has been in place since 1935.
The Sanders County Republican Central Committee, however, wants to make endorsements in two judicial races and sued the state, arguing that its free speech rights were being violated.
On Monday, a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals agreed with the Sanders County group, ruling that Montana's system is unconstitutional.
"The voters of Montana are thus deprived of the full and robust exchange of views to which, under our Constitution, they are entitled," wrote Judge Jed Rakoff in the case of Sanders County Republican Central Committee v Bullock.
To back up its opinion, the court's majority cited the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision, which progressives and campaign finance reformers would like to see overturned because it allowed unlimited corporate spending in the U.S. electoral system.
Rakoff noted in his ruling that in Citizens United, the Supreme Court "rejected the argument that political speech of corporations or other associations should be treated differently under the First Amendment simply because such associations are not 'natural persons.'"
The appeals court's 2-1 majority further ruled that the ban on political endorsements should be lifted immediately. Rakoff and Judge Ronald Gould were appointed by President Bill Clinton, while Judge Mary Schroeder -- the dissenting vote on the panel -- was appointed by President Jimmy Carter.
In June, Montana endured another defeat defending its elections system, when the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that the state's ban on corporate political money was unconstitutional.
"The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law,” the 5-4 Supreme Court majority wrote. "There can be no serious doubt that it does."
Matthew Monforton, the attorney representing the Sanders County Republicans, told the Missoulian that the group was pleased “two Clinton-appointed judges agree with us on basic First Amendment rights."
"Montana has a conservative electorate, but a Massachusetts judiciary, in large part because of state censorship laws enabling left-wing judicial candidates to masquerade as moderate," Monforton said. "With this decision, that game is now over."
The Ninth Circuit rejected the state of Montana's argument that nonpartisan elections are necessary for a "fair and independent" judiciary.
"Montana offers no evidence to support this facially doubtful proposition, and it flies in the face of the fact that many of the other 38 states that elect their judges not only allow party endorsements but require party nominations," wrote Rakoff. "Nor does Montana suggest that, as a result, the judiciaries of these other states lack fairness or integrity."
Rakoff added that if Montana were concerned about this new system, it could "appoint its judges, with a bipartisan and expert panel making nominations -- a less restrictive alternative currently practiced by several states."
Schroeder came to a different conclusion in her dissent.
“The result [of the ruling] is to encourage a judiciary dependent upon political alliances,” Schroeder wrote. “Political endorsements, much more than judges’ discussion of issues, lead to political indebtedness, which in turn has a corrosive impact on the public’s perception of the judicial system.”
According to a recent analysis by the progressive Center for American Progress, spending on judicial elections has skyrocketed in the past two decades, fueled in large part by donations from corporate interests such as the U.S. Chamber of Commerce. In 1990, candidates for state supreme courts raised around $3 million. In the 2000 race, they raised more than $45 million.
Montana Justice Department spokeswoman Mary Beck told the Missoulian that she was unsure whether the state would appeal.
Read the majority opinion in Sanders County Republican Central Committee v Bullock:
Also on HuffPost:
Alabama State Capitol (Montgomery, Ala.)
Pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 2012. (AP Photo/Dave Martin)
Alaska State Capitol (Juneau, Alaska)
Pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 18, 2011. (AP Photo/Chris Miller)
Arizona State Capitol (Phoenix)
Pictured on Friday, April 23, 2010. (Photo by John Moore/Getty Images)
Arkansas State Capitol (Little Rock, Ark.)
Pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 30, 2011. (AP Photo/Danny Johnston)
California State Capitol (Sacramento, Calif.)
Pictured on Thursday, Jan. 5, 2006. (Photo by David Paul Morris/Getty Images)
Colorado State Capitol (Denver)
Pictured on Thursday, Oct. 26, 2006. (Photo by Doug Pensinger/Getty Images)
Connecticut State Capitol (Hartford, Conn.)
Pictured on Tuesday, Feb. 7, 1999. (AP Photo/Bob Child)
Delaware State Capitol (Dover, Del.)
Florida State Capitol (Tallahassee, Fla.)
Pictured on Monday, Jan. 3, 2011. (AP Photo/John Raoux)
Georgia State Capitol (Atlanta)
Pictured on Tuesday, November 13, 2007. (Photo by Jessica McGowan/Getty Images)
Hawaii State Capitol (Honolulu)
Idaho State Capitol (Boise, Idaho)
Pictured on Monday, Jan. 14, 2008. (Ned Dishman/NBAE via Getty Images)
Illinois State Capitol (Springfield, Ill.)
Pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 21, 2004. (AP Photo/Seth Perlman)
Indiana State Capitol (Indianapolis)
Pictured on Saturday, Feb. 4, 2012. (Photo by Jeff Gross/Getty Images)
Iowa State Capitol (Des Moines, Iowa)
Pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 10, 2011. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)
Kansas State Capitol (Topeka, Kan.)
Pictured on Thursday, April 15, 2010. (AP Photo/Orlin Wagner)
Kentucky State Capitol (Frankfort, Ky.)
Pictured on Wednesday, April 12, 2006. (AP Photo/James Crisp)
Louisiana State Capitol (Baton Rouge, La.)
Pictured on Monday, Jan. 14, 2008. (Matthew HINTON/AFP/Getty Images)
Maine State Capitol (Augusta, Me.)
Pictured on Monday, Oct. 17, 2011. (AP Photo/Pat Wellenbach)
Maryland State House (Annapolis, Md.)
(Photo by Patrick Smith/Getty Images)
Massachusetts State House (Boston)
Pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 2, 2007. (Photo by Darren McCollester/Getty Images)
Michigan State Capitol (Lansing, Mich.)
Pictured on Wednesday, April 13, 2011. (Photo by Bill Pugliano/Getty Images)
Minnesota State Capitol (St. Paul, Minn.)
Pictured on Friday, July 1, 2011. (Photo by Hannah Foslien/Getty Images)
Mississippi State Capitol (Jackson, Miss.)
Pictured on Thursday, June 10, 1999. (AP Photo/Rogelio Solis)
Missouri State Capitol (Jefferson City, Mo.)
Pictured on Friday, Oct. 16, 2000. (Photo credit should read ORLIN WAGNER/AFP/Getty Images)
Montana State Capitol (Helena, Mont.)
Nebraska State Capitol (Lincoln, Neb.)
Pictured on Wednesday, Nov. 25, 1998. (AP Photo/S.E. McKee)
Nevada State Capitol (Carson City, Nev.)
New Hampshire State House (Concord, N.H.)
Pictured on Friday, Dec. 28, 2001. (Todd Warshaw//Pool/Getty Images
New Jersey State House (Trenton, N.J.)
Pictured on Friday, Aug. 13, 2004. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
New Mexico State Capitol (Santa Fe, N.M.)
New York State Capitol (Albany, N.Y.)
Pictured on Sunday, March 16, 2008. (Photo by Daniel Barry/Getty Images)
North Carolina State Capitol (Raleigh, N.C.)
Pictured in 1930. (AP Photo)
North Dakota State Capitol (Bismarck, N.D.)
Pictured on Thursday, April 19, 2012. (AP Photo/Dale Wetzel)
Ohio Statehouse (Columbus, Ohio)
Pictured on Tuesday, March 8, 2011. (Photo by Mike Munden/Getty Images)
Oklahoma State Capitol (Oklahoma City)
Pictured on Wednesday, Feb. 29, 2012. (AP Photo/Sue Ogrocki)
Oregon State Capitol (Salem, Ore.)
Pictured on Friday, May 20, 2011. (AP Photo/Rick Bowmer, file)
Pennsylvania State Capitol (Harrisburg, Pa.)
Pictured on Thursday, June 28, 2012. (BRIGITTE DUSSEAU/AFP/GettyImages)
Rhode Island State House (Providence, R.I.)
Pictured on Wednesday, Aug. 1, 1945. (AP Photo)
South Carolina State House (Columbia, S.C.)
Pictured on Monday, Jan. 21, 2008. (Photo by Chris Hondros/Getty Images)
South Dakota State Capitol (Pierre, S.D.)
Pictured on Tuesday, Jan. 10, 2012. (AP Photo/Doug Dreyer)
Tennessee State Capitol (Nashville, Tenn.)
Pictured on Tuesday, Sept. 30, 1941. (AP Photo)
Texas State Capitol (Austin, Texas)
Pictured on Tuesday, Oct. 4, 2011. (MIRA OBERMAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Utah State Capitol (Salt Lake City)
Pictured on Thursday, March 15, 2001. (GEORGE FREY/AFP/Getty Images)
Vermont State House (Montpelier, Vt.)
Pictured on April 9, 1953. (AP Photo/Francis C. Curtin)
Virginia State Capitol (Richmond, Va.)
Pictured on Wednesday, May 2, 2007. (Photo by Chris Jackson/Getty Images)
Washington State Capitol (Olympia, Wash.)
Pictured on Wednesday, Jan. 18, 2012. (AP Photo/Rachel La Corte)
West Virginia State Capitol (Charleston, W.V.)
Pictured on July 2, 2010. (MANDEL NGAN/AFP/Getty Images)
Wisconsin State Capitol (Madison, Wis.)
Pictured on Saturday, Dec. 24, 2011. (KAREN BLEIER/AFP/Getty Images)
Wyoming State Capitol (Cheyenne, Wyo.)
Pictured on Tuesday, March 6, 2001. (Photo by Michael Smith/Newsmakers)