HELENA, Montana — A court decision on whether individuals and political parties can give money to state candidates without limits isn't likely to come until after the Nov. 4 elections, parties involved in the case said Monday.
That means this year's elections probably won't see a last-minute ruling that results in a sudden flood of campaign cash, which happened just weeks before the 2012 elections when U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled the state's campaign contribution limits were unconstitutional.
The Helena judge struck down a state law that sets individual contribution limits, which are now $170 for legislative candidates and most other candidates for public office in the state. The limits for statewide offices, such as attorney general, are higher, at $320, and the limit for a candidate for governor is $650.
The law also sets aggregate contribution limits from political party committees to candidates that range from $850 per election for a state House candidate to $23,350 for a gubernatorial candidate.
The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals blocked Lovell's ruling after the state filed an appeal, and it is still considering the case. A wide range of voters' rights, advocacy and business groups have gotten involved, arguing the state's contribution limits ensure that each vote cast is given equal weight.
The plaintiffs, led by then-American Tradition Partnership director Doug Lair, argue the contribution limits violate their constitutional rights to free speech and association.
If the 9th Circuit agrees with the plaintiffs' argument and upholds Lovell's ruling, the stay would be lifted for state races.
"That would mean the limits are struck down. It's as simple as that," said plaintiffs' attorney Anita Milanovich.
But Milanovich and Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl, who is named as the lead defendant in the case, said that decision probably won't come in time to affect this year's elections.
The state recently received an extension until September to file a legal brief, and oral arguments will be set after that. Those arguments could be months away, attorneys for the state and the plaintiffs said.
"I think it's probably the best news for the public," Motl said. "It means there won't be any potential for disruption. We saw what happened in the (2012) gubernatorial campaign."
Then, the Montana Republican Party used Lovell's ruling to donate $500,000 to former U.S. Rep. Rick Hill's gubernatorial campaign and $32,000 for Tim Fox's campaign for attorney general.
But when the 9th Circuit blocked Lovell's ruling days later, a heated debate began over whether the donations were legal.
Fox returned the donation he received and won his race. Hill didn't, Democrat Steve Bullock filed a lawsuit, and the final days before the election were spent both in the courtroom and on the campaign trail.
Bullock aide Kevin O'Brien separately filed a complaint with Motl's office against Hill for accepting the donation. Hill unsuccessfully asked a federal judge to immunize him from a state investigation, which is on hold while the appeals court has the case.