Judge strikes parts of heavily amended campaign finance bill

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s Republican-controlled Legislature violated the state Constitution, a judge has ruled, when it changed a campaign finance bill late in the 2021 session to make it harder to register and to encourage college students to vote and to, in effect, limit donations to judicial campaigns.

District Court Judge Mike Menahan on Thursday granted a permanent injunction preventing the state from enforcing the two provisions that were added to Senate Bill 319 during a conference committee—with no public input—a day before the Legislature adjourned.

Montana’s Constitution requires that bills contain a single subject. It also prevents the Legislature from amending laws so much that their original purpose is changed.

The bill initially offered a way for groups of candidates to create joint fundraising committees.

The late amendments included one to prohibit political committees from conducting voter registration, ballot signature gathering, ballot collection efforts or turn-out-the-vote efforts inside a residence hall, dining facility or athletic facility on public college campuses.

The other called for judges to recuse themselves if an attorney or party in a case before them made more than 50% of the maximum allowed donation to their campaign within the previous six years.

Both amendments were outside the title of the bill, making them unconstitutional, Menahan said.

The ruling “sends a clear message that the Montana legislature is not above the law,” Raph Graybill, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in a statement.

The lawsuit was filed against Gov. Greg Gianforte by the Forward Montana group dedicated to electing progressive leaders, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and attorney Gary Zadick.

A spokesperson for the office of Attorney General Austin Knudsen, who is representing Gianforte, said the office was evaluating its options with regard to an appeal.

The amendments to SB319 continued efforts by Republicans during the 2021 session that seemed aimed at making it more difficult for college students—who tend to vote Democratic—to register and vote in Montana, and to challenge the state’s judiciary.

The Republican majority passed legislation — which is being challenged in court — that said a college identification is not sufficient ID to register or vote in Montana elections.

The majority also passed a bill to eliminate Election Day voter registration. Republican Rep. Jedediah Hinkle spoke in favor of the bill by telling the House about an election day in Gallatin County where a nonprofit group “not on our side of the aisle” bused students to the polls all day.

The Montana Democratic Party and others have filed a federal complaint against the restrictions on college political activity contained in SB319. The complaint calls the legislation an attack on previous years’ successful efforts “and increased political power of Montana’s youngest voters,” and argues the law violates free speech and voting rights.

That case is still pending. Several other laws are also challenging the end to Election Day voter registration.

During the 2021 session, Montana lawmakers also passed a bill to eliminate the Judicial Nomination Commission, allowing the governor to directly fill District Court vacancies between elections.

The bill’s sponsor, Republican Sen. Keith Regier of Kalispell, said it was up to the governor “to appoint qualified, thoughtful judges who will rule strictly on the law and Constitution and not legislate from the bench.”

Lawmakers also created a special select committee to investigate the judiciary and engaged in a subpoena battle with the Montana Supreme Court and its court administrator over a survey she sent to members of the Montana Judges Association about the bill to eliminate the Judicial Nomination Commission.

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