HELENA — The commissioner of political practices on Tuesday tossed out four complaints alleging misrepresentation of a candidate's record after a judge's decision that the underlying state laws unconstitutionally restrict free speech, the latest development in the ongoing battle over Montana campaign finance laws.
In May, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled a law requiring attack ads to disclose voting records was unconstitutional, as is a state ban on knowingly making false statements about a candidate's record.
That court case is part of a multi-pronged effort by conservative groups to toss many aspects of state campaign finance laws by piggybacking on the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 Citizens United decision that granted some free-speech rights to corporations.
Commissioner of Political Practices Jim Murry wrote Tuesday that Lovell's decision prevents him from enforcing the ban. He dismissed four local election complaints that had alleged misrepresentation.
One of the complaints came from state Rep. Tom Burnett, R-Bozeman, who alleged the Gallatin County and Montana Democratic Party central committees misrepresented his record on a flier.
Another alleged Rep. Joanne Blyton, R-Joliet, misrepresented the record of Democratic challenger Paul Beck, of Red Lodge, at a dinner for seniors.
Two other dismissed complaints alleged that Missoula City Council candidate Caitlin Copple also broke the law requiring citation of voting records during a 2011 campaign.
The battle over Montana campaign finance laws is being waged in the highest courts in the nation.
Largely, Democrats led by elected officials are trying to preserve Montana laws in the face of several legal challenges from conservative and Republican groups.
Murry's decision came on the same day that U.S. Sen. Max Baucus got a Senate committee hearing for his longshot effort to amend the U.S. Constitution to undo the 2010 Citizens United decision. It is also supported by U.S. Sen. Jon Tester.
Several leading Democrats are also backing an initiative, which received enough signatures to qualify for the November ballot, that declares corporations aren't people and that money isn't political speech. I-166 would direct Montana's congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment undoing the effects of the 2010 Citizens United decision.
Some conservatives on Monday asked the Montana Supreme Court to strike that initiative from the ballot, arguing it is unconstitutional encroachment on freedom of speech.
In another case, Attorney General Steve Bullock has gained notoriety for his unsuccessful effort to preserve a century-old Montana law that banned certain corporate money in state political campaigns and was originally enacted by voters upset with the influence of wealthy mining interests. Bullock is also appealing Lovell's decision on disclosure of candidate records to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals
Another aspect of that case in front of Lovell, which is scheduled for a September trial, argues that the state's limits on donations to candidates by political parties and individuals are too low. Lovell has also scheduled a September trial for a request by the Sanders County Republican Party to throw out Montana's ban on party endorsements for non-partisan judicial candidates.