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Eight years of litigation to abolish Montana’s campaign contribution limits ended Monday with two words from the U.S. Supreme Court: certiorari denied.

Lair v. Mangan was among dozens of cases that the nation’s highest court declined to review in an order issued Monday.

The high court order allows the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals ruling to stand. The court upheld Montanans’ authority to limit how much money a contributor may donate to a candidate for public office.

Doug Lair was one of three individuals, who along with American Tradition Partnership, Montana Right to Life Association PAC, Sweet Grass Council for Community Integrity, Lake County Republican Central Committee, Beaverhead Republican Central Committee, Jake Oil LLC, JL Oil LLC and Champion Painting Inc., filed a lawsuit in September 2011 in U.S. District Court in Billings.

The lawsuit was one of a series involving American Tradition Partnership (originally named Western Tradition Partnership) that sought to overturn Montana campaign laws, including the state’s century-old voter-approved ban on corporate campaign contributions and newer statutes requiring truth in political advertising among other things.

ATP and its associates succeeded in getting most of the campaign laws thrown out. A week before voting started in the 2012 Montana General Election, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell ruled in favor of ATP and Lair, nullifying Montana contribution limits, too.

The Republican Governors Association quickly donated $500,000 to the campaign of Rick Hill, the GOP nominee for governor. Lovell’s decision was appealed to the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which reinstated the Montana campaign limits pending appeal, so the limits were off for just six days.

The Hill campaign asked the U.S. Supreme Court to intervene and allow unlimited donations pending appeal, which the high court declined to do. Eventually, the circuit court upheld the donation limits’ constitutionality and the law's foes appealed to the U.S. Supreme Court.

What this long legal battle means is that Montana must not take our campaign finance laws for granted. Commissioner of Political Practices Jeff Mangan, who has the duty of enforcing those laws, needs adequate staffing and resources to fulfill his vital watchdog role.

The flurry of court action in the 2012 General Election erased any doubt that even greater sums of cash would flood into our elections if we had no limits.

“Montana’s limits leave candidates with the ability to conduct an effective campaign for office,” Commissioner of Political Practice’s Chief Legal Counsel Jaime MacNaughton said in a news release Monday. “Our limits allow individuals to associate with the candidate of their choice through their own speech, volunteering, discussing their merits with their neighbors, and through making their voice heard at the ballot box. Montana secured a victory today for transparency and accountability in our government and elected officials.”

The Montana Attorney General’s Office successfully defended the state contribution law, starting when Democrat Steve Bullock was attorney general and concluding under the leadership of Republican Tim Fox.

"I've never heard any Montanan say we need more money in politics and I'm glad to see the Supreme Court for once agrees," Bullock said Monday. Montanans troubled by recent growth in campaign spending across the political spectrum will agree with the governor.

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The Billings Gazette

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