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In Federal Court, a Fight Over Montana Disclosure Rules

Will a Montana nonprofit group win a battle to be allowed to publish political ads without disclosing its donors? A Flathead Beacon article suggests that in a federal court case, disclosure rules may prevail.

Montanans for Community Development, the nonprofit group, initially sued in federal district court last year, and it amended its complaint in June after the Montana legislature passed into law a measure requiring that groups contributing to state elections disclose their donors (see Gavel Grab).

This month, District Judge Dana Christensen said the group would have to furnish more evidence supporting its claim it should be exempt from disclosure rules. Read more

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Montana Governor Vetoes Judicial Budget Protection Measure

Governor Steve Bullock of Montana vetoed a bill that would prohibit executive interference with judiciary budget proposals.

Gavel to Gavel explains that although 29 states already have similar laws, Governor Bullock worries the bill would put legislative priorities at risk. In his veto message, he said the bill “could force the executive branch to forego its budget priorities in order to fully fund a budget request of the judiciary that has no boundaries or limitations.”

It is not clear if the state Senate will have enough votes (34 needed) to override the veto.

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Montana Sunshine Will Illuminate Dark Money in State-Wide Elections

Governor Bullock

Governor Bullock

Governor Steve Bullock of Montana signed the Montana Disclose Act this week, expanding  campaign finance regulations.

Sponsored by Republican Sen. Duane Ankney, the legislation requires groups that contribute to state elections disclose their donors, according to the Associated Press. “Beginning next election Montanans for state races will be able to accurately judge and understand the political attacks that have become so common in our elections and will have the opportunity to see who’s funding those attacks,” Bullock said.  “We’re saying if you’re going to spend money in our elections you need to just simply disclose who’s writing those checks.” The bill narrowly passed in a nearly party line vote, with 10 Republicans siding with all the Democrats.

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Legislation Would Force Montana ‘Dark Money’ Out of Shadows

iStock_000015670171Small1-1Once Gov. Steve Bullock signs the legislation, will there be an end to the flood of “dark money” in Montana elections? That’s what Huffington Post predicts after the Montana legislature finished approving a campaign finance measure this week.

“The Montana legislature passed sweeping campaign finance legislation on Wednesday that will require the disclosure of all donors to any independent group spending money on state-level elections,” Huffington Post reported. 

“Montana elections are about to become the most transparent in the nation, requiring those trying to influence our elections to come out of the dark money shadows,” said Bullock. He is a Democrat. The legislature is dominated by Republicans.  Read more

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Ex-Justice Nelson Urges Switch to Merit Selection in Montana

Retired Justice Nelson

Retired Justice Nelson

With scathing criticism of Citizens United’s “destructive fallout” for elected state courts, retired Montana Supreme Court Justice James Nelson is calling for a switch to merit selection of his state’s judges, before a “real train wreck” occurs.

In the February edition of Montana Lawyer, Justice Nelson writes a lengthy and detailed plea for a switch to merit selection, beginning with his own admission that for years he strongly supported electing Montana judges and justices. The impact of Citizens United and a $1.63 million contest for one Montana high court seat last year have helped make him a “true believer” to the contrary,  he says. His top critiques of Citizens United follow:

“First, Citizens United discourages qualified attorneys from running for judicial office. … Why would a qualified and experienced attorney choose to run for a judicial office that pays a fraction of that in the private sector; that requires the candidate to raise and spend a small fortune; and that demands the candidate, for months on end, subject herself or himself (along with their families) to a barrage of lies, misinformation and abuse from out-of-state organizations that know nothing — and care less — about the targeted candidate, Montana, its people or its Constitution and laws?

“Second, Citizens United actually encourages unqualified and inexperienced candidates to run. These types know that if they play to the out-of-state dark money folks; that if they promote the party or special interest agenda as their raison d’etre for running; and that if they mislead, dissemble and conceal their true selves, platform and motivation, then they will be able to count on the support and mega-bucks of the likes of the Republican State Leadership Committee, the Koch Brothers and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce.”

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Judicial Recusal Bill Weighed in Montana Legislature

A bill under debate in the Montana legislature would require a judge to step aside from hearing a case if he or she received $35 in campaign donations from a party or lawyer involved in the case, according to Gavel to Gavel.

According to an Associated Press report, “A slate of judges, attorneys and a representative of the State Bar of Montana opposed the measure. They argued that widespread disqualification would ensue under HB 255 given the high number of attorneys that contribute to campaigns.”

Justice at Stake has called in general for more rigorous recusal rules, in order to protect fair and impartial courts when judges are elected. JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg wrote in a Chicago Tribune op-ed in September 2011: Read more

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Record Set for TV Ad Spending in Montana Court Race

flag_map_of_montana-5555pxAfter a high-spending Montana Supreme Court contest, incumbent Justice Mike Wheat won a new term over challenger Lawrence VanDyke. In addition, incumbent Justice Jim Rice defeated challenger W. David Herbert.

Total TV ad spending in the election rose to a record $291,280, fueled by checks from national groups like the Republican State Leadership Committee (RSLC) and Americans for Prosperity, as well as Montanans for Liberty and Justice, supported by trial attorneys.

“It’s a sad day when non-candidate spending is the headline in a contest for a seat on Montana’s Supreme Court,” JAS Executive Director Bert Brandenburg said in a statement. “People want judges to answer to the law and the constitution, not outside interest groups.” Read more

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Americans for Prosperity Joins Montana High Court Race

Americans for Prosperity has jumped into a Montana Supreme Court race, joining three other outside groups spending to influence the outcome of the contentious contest on Nov. 4.

horizontalblack-17The Missoulian reported that Americans for Prosperity-Montana has begun airing TV and radio ads critical of incumbent Justice Mike Wheat, who is facing challenger Lawrence VanDyke. Americans for Prosperity was founded by billionaire brothers David and Charles Koch. The Montana branch of the national groups is initially spending $85,000 on ads in opposition to Justice Wheat.

The advertising says the justice “has a history of supporting extreme, partisan measures” and cites his actions in the legislature as well as a dissent he issued when on the bench. Justice Wheat fired back that the advertising was “pure politics,” amounted to “garbage” and did not truly indicate his judicial record or character. Read more

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Outside Money, Partisanship are Issues in Montana Court Race

montana_supreme_courtThe politics and money in a testy race for the Montana Supreme Supreme Court are threatening to overwhelm other issues. That’s a conclusion that can be drawn from an Associated Press article entitled, “Montana Supreme Court race takes on partisan edge.”

The challenger is former state solicitor general Lawrence VanDyke. He is “trying to cast Justice Mike Wheat as a liberal activist judge as his Republican backers pour tens of thousands of dollars into ads to support that message,” the AP said.

Justice Wheat retorted, “Our court system is under attack from out-of-state money. When it’s over, I guess they will spend somewhere around $1 million. Why in the heck would they do that? Because they want a court that is not fair and balanced, a court that is going to make decisions more to their liking.” Read more

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Most 'Expensive and Partisan' Court Race in Montana Looming?

Montana_quarter,_reverse_side,_2007Political flyers are arriving in mailboxes and PAC money is flowing. This year’s Montana Supreme Court election is “shaping up to be the most hotly contested, expensive and partisan race for the … Court the state’s ever seen,” the Missoula Independent reports.

The article documents registration by three political action committees interested in the contest (see Gavel Grab) and notes that the Washington-based Republican State Leadership Committee, which is affiliated with one of the PACs, was mentioned in a recent op-ed by six retired state Supreme Court justices.

“These various groups and organizations are inundating non-partisan judicial elections with staggering amounts of cash to accomplish their goals and to politicize otherwise non-partisan judicial races,” the retired justices wrote. “Unfortunately, it has been demonstrated that the amount of expenditures and contributions to judicial races correlates directly with how a benefiting justice votes on cases.” Read more

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