HELENA, Mont. — The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals reinstated Montana's campaign donation limits, telling the federal judge who struck down the limits that the panel needs to see his full reasoning so it can review the case.
The court intervened late Tuesday less than a week after the judge's decision opened the door to unlimited money in state elections – during the height of election season.
In response, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell issued a 38-page conclusion Wednesday morning that reinforced his earlier decision finding that the state's limits are too low to allow effective campaigning. He suggested the state Legislature would have a "clean canvas" to perhaps establish new, higher limits that could meet constitutional muster.
The 9th circuit did not immediately respond, leaving the state limits in place – for the time being. The legal back and forth came with less than a month until Election Day.
Montana limits range from $630 for an individual contributing to a governor's race to $160 for a state House candidate. The amounts are adjusted each election cycle to account for inflation. The law also limited aggregate donations from political parties.
Conservative groups emboldened by the 2010 U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision have made Montana the center of the fight over many campaign finance restrictions.
The groups have convinced a federal judge to strike down several laws as unconstitutional, including the cap on contributions given to candidates by individuals and political parties.
Over the past week, Montana election officials had urged candidates to abide by the old limits. But attorneys for conservative and Republican groups advised candidates they could take unlimited money during that window.
Some candidates said they would abide by the old limits, while others considered the idea of taking larger donations. The effect won't be known until disclosure reports are filed later with the state Commissioner of Political Practices.
The disclosure of donations is still required, although state officials worry that conservative groups will next attack that aspect of campaign finance law.
Lovell said in his complete Wednesday order that his decision was not about the policy of having unlimited donations in an election's closing weeks.
"Much has been made of whether striking Montana's contribution limits is good policy and good for Montana voters. This case, though, is not about policy. It is about following the law that the United States Supreme Court set out," Lovell wrote.
The Montana attorney general's office did not immediately comment.
One of the attorneys working for the Washington D.C.-based American Tradition Partnership, a group at the center of several Montana cases, said they hope the appeals court will lift its stay in the wake of Lovell's full decision.
The attorney general's office argues that American Tradition Partnership is a shadowy front group which is illegally trying to conceal its political spending, perhaps with money received from foreign corporations. The state is seeking sanctions against the conservative group in a separate court case.
Montana has seen many of its laws struck down in the wake of the Citizens United decision that opened the door for more corporate spending in federal races, citing freedom of speech issues.
Last month, a federal appeals court struck down Montana's ban on partisan endorsements of judicial candidates, citing Citizens United.
U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell earlier this year ruled as unconstitutional laws requiring attack ads to disclose voting records and a ban on knowingly false statements in such ads.
The Supreme Court also tossed the state's century-old, voter-approved ban on independent corporate political spending in state races.
That decision prompted a new ballot initiative that, if approved in November by voters, asks state leaders to seek a constitutional amendment undermining the high court's decision.