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9th Circuit rejects Montana appeal of decision applying Citizens United to contribution limits

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HELENA, Montana — A federal court has rejected Montana's request to rehear its defense of state campaign contribution limits.

The 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Tuesday that none of its 44 judges moved to reconsider the case that the court already decided was tried on out-of-date standards. A panel of three federal judges ruled in May that a state District Court must re-examine the constitutionality of Montana's contribution limits based on legal tests outlined in the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United ruling.

"That last hearing was hasty, just before the (2012) election, and as you can see from this decision the legal standards it was reviewed by were murky," Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl said of the original decision by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena.

Anita Y. Milanovich, an attorney at Bopp Law Firm representing the plaintiffs, said the people and political action committees seeking to overturn Montana's contribution limits agreed with the circuit court's May ruling and are pleased it will not reconsider.

"It's not just influence but bribery that the state needs to prove they're trying to affect with these laws," Milanovich said. "The district court had not nearly approached that topic as narrowly as they ought to have."

Lovell had struck down Montana's contribution limits, saying they were too low for candidates to effectively campaign. He had resolved the case in part by using a pre-Citizens United legal model requiring states to only show contribution limits aimed to curb financial influence in government.

The 9th Circuit responded in its decision that, in the wake of Citizens United, states must now prove contribution limits further a "sufficiently important state interest," identify that interest and show how such limits prevent corruption or the appearance of corruption.

"We won't have a substantive decision on whether these contribution limits are constitutional until those legal standards are applied," Motl said. "Whoever loses that will undoubtedly appeal it to the 9th Circuit, and then that case would go to the Supreme Court."

Along with the decision to forego a full hearing, the 9th Circuit amended that opinion on Tuesday. Motl said the update further clarified how the District Court should use the landmark campaign finance decision in its do-over ruling.

"Like everything in life, it could be said a little more plainly — and that's what this does," Motl said.

Motl said Montana's various campaign contribution limits have remained in place throughout the case and will apply to 2016 campaigns.

Individual people are capped at donating $170 to legislative candidates and $650 to gubernatorial candidates. Montana law also caps contributions from political parties ranging from $850 per election to a state House candidate to $23,350 for a gubernatorial candidate.

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