Lawyers from the Wisconsin Institute for Law & Liberty (WILL) have filed an amicus brief with the U.S. Supreme Court in a case involving Montana’s low political campaign contribution limits. The public interest law group is asking the court to take up the case following a decision by the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals decision to uphold Montana’s strict campaign finance laws.
The low contribution limits raise free speech concerns, according to WILL President and General Counsel Rick Esenberg.
“The U.S. Supreme Court has the perfect opportunity to clarify the standard to which state government can set limits on how much ‘speech’ someone can give,” Esenberg said. “The low contribution limits in Montana seem particularly problematic. The Court needs to clarify this area of the law and doing so will both safeguard the electoral system and people’s First Amendment rights.”
Under a Montana law enacted last year, contributions to gubernatorial campaigns are limited to $1,320. Political parties are allowed to donate $47,700, according to a report in the Great Falls Tribune. Before the limits were lowered, gubernatorial candidates could receive donations of $1,900 from individuals, $10,610 from PACs and $23,850 from political parties.
Donors to legislative races are capped at $180 per election cycle, according to the Associated Press.
The 9th Circuit ruled that the limits were reasonable given the lower costs of electioneering in Montana and that actual corruption did not need to present for campaign laws that would prevent the perception of corruption, according to the Associated Press.
However, the brief filed by Esenberg and Associate Counsel Anthony LoCoco says the government is limited to fighting quid pro quo corruption with campaign finance laws, and that the courts must carefully scrutinize limits to the freedom of speech or association.
“Most fundamentally, contributions that do not suggest quid pro quo corruption are not subject to restriction. ‘Erring on the side of caution’ is not a matter of prudence but of constitutional injury,” Esenberg and LoCoco wrote. “Overly deferential review is not permissible where the First Amendment is involved.”
In the brief, Esenberg and LoCoco described the current state of campaign finance “reform” laws as something that the Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley could recognize.
“It would not be unfair to say that the complicated and dissonant progress of campaign finance law has at times been reminiscent of Frankenstein’s monster,” they wrote. “It has been borne of ambition, cobbled together with provisions that could not withstand constitutional scrutiny and which often work at cross-purposes, and fraught with cascading unforeseen consequences.”
Esenberg and LoCoco added that the case presents an opportunity for the Supreme Court to provide clarity to the limits on campaign finance laws.
“Despite the stakes, lower courts are struggling to analyze contribution limits, as is well-illustrated by the proceedings below,” the WILL lawyers wrote. “This case thus presents an opportunity for the Court to provide needed guidance on a critical issue of law which will help safeguard the electoral system.”