HELENA – A federal appeals court panel has struck down Montana’s ban on political party endorsement of candidates in the state’s nonpartisan judicial races, saying the ban violates the parties’ rights to free speech.

The ruling late Monday by a three-judge panel of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said Montana cannot enforce the ban and that it should be lifted immediately.

“When, as here, a party seeks to engage in political speech in an impending election, a delay of even a day or two may be intolerable,” the panel’s 2-1 majority said.

The ruling is a victory for the Sanders County Republican Central Committee, which wants to endorse candidates in two judicial races: Montana’s open Supreme Court seat and the contested race between District Judge Kim Christopher of Polson and her challenger, attorney Thomas Kragh, also of Polson, in state Judicial District 20.

Matthew Monforton, a Bozeman attorney representing the Sanders County group, said its members are happy that “two Clinton-appointed judges agree with us on basic First Amendment rights.”

“Montana has a conservative electorate, but a Massachusetts judiciary, in large part because of state censorship laws enabling left-wing judicial candidates to masquerade as moderate,” Monforton said Tuesday. “With this decision, that game is now over.”

In its lawsuit challenging the endorsement ban, the Sanders County committee said “left-leaning judges” are intruding into state policy and that it wants to endorse candidates that “share its ideological views.”

Monforton said the group would announce later this week who it will endorse in the two races.

Attorney General Steve Bullock, whose office defended the law, said he’s “extremely disappointed” with the ruling, which he called “one more case of federal intrusion into Montana’s ability to run our state government according to the will of the people, expressed through their elected legislators.”

State Justice Department officials said they’ll consider how best to appeal the ruling to the full 9th U.S. Circuit Court.

Circuit Court Justice Mary Schroeder dissented from the three-judge panel’s majority ruling, saying Montana has the right to enforce the ban to preserve the nonpartisan nature of its judicial elections.

“The result (of the ruling) is to encourage a judiciary dependent upon political alliances,” she wrote. “Political endorsements, much more than judges’ discussion of issues, lead to political indebtedness, which in turn has a corrosive impact on the public’s perception of the judicial system.”

The majority ruling also said political parties should be able to “expend monies to publicize such endorsements.”

Monforton said his clients plan to put their endorsement on their website and perhaps buy advertisements in local newspapers.

The Circuit Court panel’s ruling overturned a decision by U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena, who declined to block Montana’s ban and said removing it would make judicial races “nonpartisan only in form.”

Lovell had ruled only on the GOP group’s request to block the ban immediately, pending a trial on the issue. State lawyers say they’ll now ask to cancel the trial.

Circuit Court Justice Ronald Gould and U.S. District Judge Jed Rakoff of New York formed the majority on the panel that struck down Montana’s ban, saying it “deprived (Montana voters) of the full and robust exchange of views to which, under our Constitution, they are entitled.”

“… Political speech, including the endorsement of candidates for office, is at the core of speech protected by the First Amendment,” they wrote.

Missoulian State Bureau reporter Mike Dennison can be reached at 1-800-525-4920 or at mike.dennison@lee.net.

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