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Federal appeals court rejects request to block Montana campaign laws before election

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HELENA, Montana — A federal appeals court on Thursday rejected a request that would have allowed certain tax-exempt groups to release campaign-related ads in Montana before Tuesday's election without disclosing their donors or spending.

Without comment, a two-judge panel from the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals denied Montanans for Community Development's emergency motion for an injunction.

The Billings-based group wants to prevent the state from enforcing laws that define campaign contributions, expenditures and political committees. It says the legal definitions are too vague, the disclosure requirements of political committees are too cumbersome, and the laws infringe upon its free-speech rights.

Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said the effect would have been a collapse of the regulations that keep outside groups from coordinating with candidates and spending money to boost or oppose those candidates' campaigns

"On behalf of the people of Montana, I'm pleased because it keeps our election process in 2014 orderly," Motl said. "That's a far cry from what happened in 2012."

In 2012, less than a month before the election, groups and individuals challenging Montana's campaign contribution limits won an injunction from U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell to block the limits. The 9th Circuit reinstated those limits a little more than a week later, but in the meantime, Republican gubernatorial candidate Rick Hill accepted a $500,000 donation from the Montana Republican Party.

Much of the last leg of the governor's race that year was spent in a courtroom challenging that donation. Lawsuits and campaign complaints from that case are still pending.

The same law firm that represented the plaintiffs in that 2012 case is representing Montanans for Community Development. Anita Milanovich of the James Bopp Law Firm said Thursday the preliminary injunction may have been denied, but the appeal challenging the laws is still pending.

"At this point, the decision is the decision and we're assessing our options for our clients," Milanovich said.

Montanans for Community Development asked the appellate court for the injunction after being rejected twice by U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, who said what the group was attempting was staggering in its breadth.

The group, which is registered as a tax-exempt 501(c)(4) organization, wants to release ads before the election that mention candidates, without being labeled a political committee. It also wants to prevent Motl's office from publishing the election complaints it receives and the decisions it makes on those complaints, because of the potential to disclose an association's private information.

Montanans For Community Development's president is Bill Coate, who ran for governor as an independent in 2012. One of its board members is state Sen. Ed Walker, R-Billings.

The group describes itself as engaging in "grassroots advocacy and issues-oriented educational campaigns to further its goal." The ads it seeks to publish tout energy development and blast environmentalist groups, while picturing legislative candidates who support or oppose its views.

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