In a victory for reasonable limits on political giving, on Monday the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals reversed a Montana district court decision, Lair v. Motl, which had struck down campaign contribution limits under Montana law as unconstitutional.

The original case was brought before the Montana district court by two campaign donors, joined by a handful of Montana political action committees (PACs), who wanted to give amounts above the state contribution limits to candidates and felt that those limits infringed on their First Amendment right to free speech. The state of Montana argued that without campaign contribution limits, the likelihood of quid pro quo corruption, or the appearance thereof, would increase.

The court had to weigh two considerations: how well the limits served the “‘important state interest’…of preventing actual or perceived quid pro quo corruption” and how “closely drawn” the limits were to that interest. In order to be “closely drawn,” the limits must “focus narrowly on the state’s interest” enough to allow contributors to sufficiently affiliate with a candidate and for that candidate to raise enough money to effectively campaign. The district court ruled that the limits did not satisfy either consideration.

Although the state of Montana presented clear evidence of quid pro quo offers, including an offer of thousands of dollars to the campaigns of Montana state legislators from the group National Right to Work Committee, the district court wrote that since “the quids in each one of the cited instances were either rejected by, or were unlikely to have any behavioral effect upon, the individuals toward whom they were directed…Defendants have failed to prove that Montana’s campaign contribution limits further the important state interest of combating quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.” In an oddly reasoned opinion, the absurdity of which was  highlighted at the time by CREW Counsel Stuart McPhail, the court had decided that contribution limits were unnecessary because “the evidence shows that Montana politicians are relatively incorruptible.”  

The Ninth Circuit panel overruled the lower court, writing that even if the “attempted corruption did not succeed…Montana need not show any completed quid pro quo transactions to satisfy its burden. It simply must show the risk of actual or perceived quid pro quo corruption is not illusory.” Since the state’s evidence clearly illustrated that risk, the Circuit panel concluded that contribution limits ultimately do serve the state’s interest of preventing the actual or perceived corruption.

With regard to the second consideration, the lower court decided that the limits were not “closely drawn” because they had been established by a voter referendum (Initiative 118) in 1994 in which an accompanying voter information pamphlet contained language that “urged voters to pass I-118 to prevent ‘[m]oney from special interests and the wealthy’ from ‘drowning out the voice of regular people.’” Since that is not a legally sound reason for limiting campaign contributions, the district court “concluded that the Montana voters who approved I-118 acted with an impermissible motive,” which invalidated the legality of the limits.

However, the Ninth Circuit recognized that it was substance, not motive, that mattered: whether a law was “closely drawn” doesn’t depend on the intent behind its passage but instead relies on whether it is in fact reasonably tailored to both prevent corruption and allow contributors to sufficiently associate with a Montana candidate and for Montana candidates to raise enough money to be competitive. Thus, the appellate court concluded, “because the limitations imposed by [Montana law] both further that interest and are adequately tailored to it, they satisfy the First Amendment.”

It is heartening to see the Ninth Circuit recognize the link between limiting financial contributions and mitigating corruption within Montana’s political system. However, political graft is a national problem, and unlimited campaign spending remains one of its enablers.

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