Montana’s Campaign Contribution Limits Upheld

This is another post-Citizens United challenge to campaign-finance laws.

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In 1994, voters in Montana passed a state initiative known simply as “Initiative 118,” which altered limits on campaign contributions in state elections.  These changes included reducing the amount of money individuals and PACs could contribute to candidates (direct contributions) and increasing the amount of money political parties could contribute (indirect contributions).  These limits were adjusted and tied to inflation and thus have increased over the last 23 years.  However, in a challenge to these limits, Doug Lair and his fellow plaintiffs argued that Montana’s campaign contribution limits restricted political speech in violation of the First Amendment.

The plaintiffs claimed that these contribution limits were too low, so as to restrict candidates from running successful campaigns (particularly political challengers running against incumbents), and restricting individuals and PACs from aligning themselves adequately with the candidates of their choice.  Furthermore, they argued that Montana had not shown enough evidence that there was significant quid pro quo in elections which needed to be addressed.

The Ninth Circuit disagreed.  Montana produced sufficient evidence that attempted bribery and corruption did exist in the form of contribution quid pro quo, and that the success of these attempts was irrelevant.  Thus, Montana claimed, it’s in their interest to restrict these attempts, which the restricted contribution limits were aimed at by targeting the largest direct contributions, which are the subject of the most attempted quid pro quo.  Having established that, the Court found that these limits’ levels were constitutional, because despite being low in absolute terms, they were fairly high relative to the low cost of campaigning in Montana.  Most campaigns received direct and indirect contributions far lower than the limits, and there was testimony of numerous politicians (both incumbents and challengers) who stated that the limits had little effect on their campaigns.  The campaign contribution limits were therefore upheld as constitutional.

Case: Lair v. Motl, No. 16-35424 (9th Cir. Oct. 23, 2017) (opinion here)

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