Judge Nukes Montana’s Campaign Contribution Limts

Judge Charles C. Lovell

Judge Charles Lovell, a Ronald Reagan appointee to the federal bench in Montana, issue a sweeping, nearly entirely unexplained opinion striking down Montana’s limits on contributions to political campaigns. So long as the judge’s decision is in effect, it means that wealthy individuals will be free to give unlimited sums of money directly to candidates for state offices in Montana.

Typically, a judge who issues a ruling of this significance will accompany it with a detailed explanation of their reasoning. Judge Lovell went a different route:

Having reviewed and considered the entire record and the parties’ arguments and evidence, the Court concludes that Montana’s contribution limits in Montana Code Annotated § 13-37-216 are unconstitutional under the First Amendment. The contribution limits prevent candidates from “amassing the resources necessary for effective campaign advocacy.” The defendants are therefore permanently enjoined from enforcing these limits.

The Court will in due course issue complete and extensive findings of fact and conclusions of law that support this order. They will be filed separately, though, so that this order can be issued before voting begins in the upcoming election.

To be fair to the judge, his ruling is not entirely unreasonable given the Roberts Court’s hostility toward campaign finance regulation. Six years ago, in Randall v, Sorrell, the Court struck down a Vermont law that capped donations at $400 for statewide offices and as low as $200 for state representatives. The Montana law caps donations to gubernatorial candidates at $500 and limits on donations to other offices can be as low as $130, so there is a reasonable case to be made that Judge Sorrell’s hand was forced by the Supreme Court.

Nevertheless, it is very unusual for a judge to issue such an decision without a meaningful explanation. Among other things, Judge Sorrell’s unwillingness to explain himself handicaps the state’s ability to challenge his decision on appeal, because they will not be able to levy attacks at weak points that may exist in Sorrell’s reasoning.

Indeed, as election law Professor Rick Hasen points out, there is a good chance that Sorrell’s failure to explain himself will lead to his order being at least temporarily suspended: “I expect Montana will go immediately to the Ninth Circuit for emergency relief, and judging from the last time a judge decided an important election question just before the election without giving any reasoning, there could well be an order staying this result, at least for this election.”