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Campaign donor limits left intact

The Supreme Court, without even seeking the views of the state of Montana, refused on Tuesday to disturb the limits that the state has put on political contributions that can be made to candidates for state offices.  The brief order, with no noted dissents, is here.  The order rejected a challenge to those donor ceilings by state Republican committees, donors, or candidates who argued that they have had to curtail campaign activity to stay under the ceilings.

The challenge was an attempt to get the Court to clarify a widely splintered decision it had issued six years ago in Randall v. Sorrell, striking down contribution limits in Vermont as too restrictive.   Lower courts have interpreted that decision in conflicting ways, and the Ninth Circuit Court has ruled twice in this case from Montana that the decision laid down no binding legal principle on the legality of campaign donations.   In its latest decision, left intact by Tuesday’s action by the Justices, the Ninth Circuit said it had settled the issue for the Montana limits in a ruling nine years ago.

Under Montana campaign finance law, groups organized as political committees may not give more than $18,000 in total to candidates running for governor and lieutenant governor as ballot mates and no more than $6,500 to candidates for other statewide offices, and are held to even lower limits for candidates for lower-level state offices.   Individuals and political action committees may only give up to $500 to the governor and lieutenant governor running together, and are held to even lower limits for other state offices — down to as low as $130.

The challengers contended that those restrictions could not pass a five-factor test that the lead opinion in the Randall case had laid down.   A federal district judge agreed with that argument, but the Ninth Circuit rejected it.  Among other factors in the circuit court ruling was that early voting had already begun in Montana, and that it would be disruptive to block the contribution limits this close to election day.

The plea to block the donor limits reached the Court just last Thursday, and the Justices did not ask for a response from the state of Montana before denying the application at midday Tuesday.  The application had been referred to the full Court by Justice Anthony M. Kennedy, who acts as Circuit Justice for emergency pleas from the Ninth Circuit.


Recommended Citation: Lyle Denniston, Campaign donor limits left intact, SCOTUSblog (Oct. 23, 2012, 1:48 PM),