A federal judge Friday indicated he may strike down a long-standing Montana campaign law that bans political parties from spending money on or endorsing nonpartisan judicial candidates. But U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell of Helena declined to suspend the law before Montana’s primary election next Tuesday, saying the issue needs a wider hearing before taking such action. “I think this is a very serious issue and the plaintiffs have a sound and authoritative basis for their position,” Lovell said. “But I do agree that further hearings are going to be required.” Lovell set a hearing for June 11 on whether the ban should be suspended while he considers a request from the Sanders County Republican Central Committee to declare the law unconstitutional. The local Republican Party committee sued Tuesday to overturn the law, saying it wants to endorse candidates running for the Montana Supreme Court and a local state district judgeship. Its lawsuit said the ban clearly violates the committee’s right to free speech, under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution. The Republican Party group also said “left-leaning judges” are making “increasing intrusions” into state policy, and that it wants to endorse candidates that “share its ideological views.”
In Montana, candidates for judgeships are nonpartisan, meaning they run and appear on the ballot without any party affiliation. However, supporters and opponents of these candidates – and, occasionally, the candidates themselves – sometimes indicate or insinuate their political leanings. State lawyers appeared Friday before Lovell to argue against suspending the law, saying its removal would not only allow political party endorsements of nonpartisan judicial candidates, but also party spending and other actions to support or oppose such candidates.
“The state of Montana … has a compelling interest in making sure its elected judiciary is fair and impartial,” said Assistant Attorney General Mike Black. “We’re not talking about just endorsements. What is anticipated is spending money, on advertising, at the last minute … to influence a nonpartisan election.” The state law prohibits political parties from endorsing, contributing money to or spending money to support or oppose a judicial candidate. Removing the ban could open the door to unlimited spending by political parties on judicial races.