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‘Dark Money’ Gets Scrutiny, Debate in Montana

Last month, the Montana Growth Network,  a tax-exempt group that made advertising expenditures in a 2012 state Supreme Court race, was accused of failing to disclose certain spending and violated disclosure laws (see Gavel Grab). The office of state Political Practices Commissioner Jonathan Motl, who leveled the accusation, disclosed wealthy donors who funded the group.

Now there is more debate about drawing back the veil on hidden spending, as reflected by dual opinions published in The Flathead Beacon:

“Big, anonymous money has and is being used to affect our laws and our lives. Dark money suggests dark deeds. Let’s shine some light,” writes Joe Carbonari.

“People should know who is funding public campaigns and pass laws that protect the political process. Public officials’ decisions affect all of us, and most of us cannot afford to buy political favor,” writes Tim Baldwin.

 

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Fundraising Already Under Way for Montana’s Supreme Court Race

Following a contentious Supreme Court election in 2014, Montana is already seeing fundraising for its primary and general Supreme Court elections this year.  That fundraising started in 2015, according to The Bozeman Daily Chronicle.  Describing his campaign donors as being across the political spectrum, one candidate said, “With the increasing politicization of these races in the last couple of cycles it’s important to go out and get diverse support,” according to the report.

Montana’s 2014 judicial election was highlighted in Justice at Stake’s recent report on judicial politics, Bankrolling the Bench. The state saw record-breaking spending as national groups including the Republican State Leadership Committee and Americans for Prosperity poured nearly $550,000 into the race.

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Group Accused of Violating Campaign Law in Montana Court Race

Montana_quarter,_reverse_side,_2007The Montana Growth Network, a tax-exempt group that made advertising expenditures in a 2012 state Supreme Court race, failed to disclose certain spending and violated disclosure laws, said Commissioner of Political Practices Jonathan Motl.

The Associated Press reported on Motl’s findings and said it will be up to prosecutors whether to bring charges in the matter. The Montana Growth Network, a non-profit and pro-business group,  funded a radio ad accusing state Supreme Court candidate Ed Sheehy of having worked as an activist against the death penalty (see Gavel Grab). Sheehy dismissed the charge as a falsehood and asked his rival, District Judge Laurie McKinnon, to denounce the advertisement and demand its withdrawal. McKinnon won election. Read more

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Group Suing Over Montana Disclosure Law Goes to High Court

A Montana nonprofit group has gone to the Supreme Court in its battle to be allowed to publish political ads without disclosing its donors.

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).

The group did not prevail in either federal district court or the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, according to an Associated Press article, and this week it asked the Supreme Court for an emergency stay of the district court’s ruling (with thanks to Election Law blog for the link).

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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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