Montana judge blocks portions of campaign finance bill

June 29, 2021 GMT

HELENA, Mont. (AP) — A District Court judge in Helena has temporarily blocked parts of a new Montana law banning voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts in certain areas of college campuses and requiring judges to recuse themselves from cases if they have received campaign donations from anyone involved in the case.

District Judge Mike Menahan said Monday he would temporarily block two parts of Senate Bill 319, which were to take effect Thursday, and would issue a written order soon, said Raph Graybill, attorney for the plaintiffs.

Those filing the legal challenge are 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.

They argued that a campaign finance bill to allow groups of candidates to create joint fundraising committees was hijacked in the final hours of the 2021 legislative session to add two unrelated provisions.

Montana’s Constitution requires that bills contain only a single subject and prevents the Legislature from amending laws so much during the process that they change their original purpose.

The plantiffs claim that the campaign finance bill was amended without public comment to require judges to recuse themselves from cases if an attorney or other party involved in a case before them had donated, directly or indirectly, to the judges’ election campaigns.

The bill was also changed during a committee meeting to make it more difficult for a civic leadership group at the University of Montana to receive funding. It made a $5-per-semester fee for the Montana Public Interest Research Group opt-in instead of opt-out and also banned voter registration activities in public college dorms, dining halls and at athletic events.

Lawyers for the state argued that Forward Montana lacked standing to challenge the campus campaign activity provision of the bill, and therefore failed to show it would cause irreparable injury to the group.

State lawyers also argued a provision of the new law applies to cases filed on or after July 1 and would not cause problems for current cases, and that all three provisions of the law regulate campaign finance.

“In granting the preliminary injunction, the judge did not address the plaintiffs’ lack of standing or the unlikelihood that they will succeed on the merits of the case,” said Kyler Nerison, a spokesperson for Attorney General Austin Knudsen, whose office is defending the legislation.

The plaintiffs also failed to show the legislation violates the Montana Constitution, Knudsen’s office argued in briefs filed in the case.

State officials will decide after receiving the judge’s written order on the preliminary injunction whether to continue arguing the case before Menahan or appeal to the Montana Supreme Court, Nerison said.

The bill that led to the law was among several passed during the session that appeared aimed at making it more difficult for college students to vote and challenging what Republicans consider an activist judiciary.

Montana’s 2021 Legislature also passed a bill to end Election Day voter registration and to require more than just student identifications for college students to register to vote or vote.

Lawmakers also passed a bill to eliminate the state’s Judicial Nomination Commission and to allow the governor to directly appoint judges to fill vacancies between elections.

All of those new laws face legal challenges. The Montana Supreme Court ruled that the judicial appointment law was constitutional, but the law faces a separate challenge on another aspect.