Appeals court upholds Montana’s landmark campaign-disclosure law

Posted at 1:58 PM, May 23, 2018
and last updated 2018-05-23 15:58:09-04

A federal appeals court has upheld Montana’s landmark law to force disclosure of campaign spending and fundraising by so-called “dark money” groups – and others attempting to influence elections here.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruled Tuesday that the 2015 law is not unconstitutionally vague and properly requires all groups that spend money on “electioneering communications” to report their donors and spending.

“Political committee reporting and disclosure laws can extend beyond groups whose major purpose is political advocacy,” a three-judge panel of the court wrote.

Groups that spend money criticizing or supporting a candidate sometimes argue they are mostly “educational” and not solely a political group, and therefore do not have to reveal their donors or what they’ve spent.

But the court rejected this argument.

“Even if electioneering communications only educate the public about a candidate, Montana still has a substantial interest in disclosing to the public who is doing the educating,” the decision said.

The Montana law, proposed by Democratic Gov. Steve Bullock enacted by a coalition of Democrats and moderate Republicans at the 2015 Legislature, says any group that spends money on ads or other activity that mentions the name of a candidate within 60 days of an election must report its finances to the commissioner of political practices.

Attorney General Tim Fox, a Republican whose office defended the law, said in a statement Wednesday that he’s proud of his legal team for “defending Montana’s choice to shine a light on all who choose to participate in our electoral process.”

“The people of Montana clearly want transparency in our elections,” Fox said.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, whose office also worked on the case, told MTN News Wednesday that he’s pleased with the ruling that “continues to uphold Montanans’ right to transparency in political campaign finances.”

James Bopp, the lead attorney for the Montana group that challenged the law, couldn’t immediately be reached for comment.

Tuesday’s decision affirmed U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen’s ruling last October, upholding the law.

Montanans for Community Development, which describes itself as a free-market group, challenged the law. It said it might want to spend money to educate the public on political issues or candidates, but did not want to report its donors.

It said the reporting requirements would harm its members’ rights of association, possibly subjecting them to political pressure and retaliation.

It also said the 2015 law’s requirements are vague and overly broad and give too much enforcement discretion to the commissioner of political practices.

The 9th Circuit ruling rejected all of the group’s arguments, saying the reporting requirements are not burdensome.