A federal appeals court Tuesday overturned a 2012 ruling that declared Montana's restrictions on state campaign contributions unconstitutional.
The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals said a federal district judge applied the wrong legal standard when he struck down the limitations as a violation of the 1st Amendment. The case will return to district court, where the judge will have to reconsider the issue under terms set down by the 9th Circuit.
Since 1994, Montana has restricted the dollar amount of contributions, adjusted for inflation.
Individuals and political action committees are limited to contributing a total of $650 to two candidates running together for governor and lieutenant governor, $320 to candidates for other statewide offices and $170 to those running for the state Legislature, the court said.
Political parties and their committees can contribute a total of $23,350 to those running together for governor and lieutenant governor, $8,450 for other statewide offices, $1,350 for state Senate and $850 for the state's House of Representatives, according to the ruling.
Republicans and business groups challenged the restrictions as a violation of the guarantee of free speech. After a bench trial, a judge ordered the state to stop enforcing the rules. Montana challenged the ruling, and the 9th Circuit put the judge's decision on hold pending appeals.
In sending the case back to the district judge, 9th Circuit Judge Carlos Bea, an appointee of former President George W. Bush, said the lower court should identify what "important state interest" was at stake and determine whether the limits were lower than necessary to prevent quid pro quo corruption or its appearance.
The panel said limits may be upheld if the evidence shows they promote an important state interest, are narrowly focused on that interest, leave contributors free to affiliate with a candidate and allow candidates enough resources to wage effective campaigns.