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Judge strikes down law restricting political activity on Montana college campuses

Also strikes language on judicial recusals
Montana State Capitol
Posted at 7:30 PM, Feb 03, 2022
and last updated 2022-02-06 15:48:59-05

HELENA — A state judge Thursday struck down portions of a Republican-passed law that restricted voter-registration drives and other political activity on portions of Montana state college campuses, saying last-minute changes to the bill at the 2021 Legislature violated a constitutional ban on inserting material that doesn't fit under the bill title.

District Judge Mike Menahan of Helena also struck a portion of the law that said judges must remove themselves from cases if any of the parties in the case made a certain level of political contributions to the judge.

"By amending the bill to include provisions regarding political activities on college campuses and judicial recusal requirements, the Legislature altered the original purpose of the bill," he wrote.

The lawsuit filed by several attorneys, a county prosecutor, a lawyers' group and a group that engages younger voters in the political process isn't the only one challenging the language in Senate Bill 319 that bars political activity on portions of state college campuses.

Another lawsuit in state District Court in Bozeman says the language violates the state Board of Regents' authority to govern the state university system, and another case in federal District Court in Missoula says it's an unconstitutional restriction of free speech.

But Menahan's decision Thursday relied on the state constitution's "single-subject" rule that says a bill before the Legislature can contain only one subject.

SB 319 was passed in the closing hours of the 2021 Legislature, after a six-member conference committee, with Republican majorities, made the changes two days before the session adjourned.

The bill, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, began as a bill revising joint fundraising committees. The changes inserted in the conference committee banned political committees from conducting a broad array of activities at residence halls, dining halls and "athletic facilities," such as stadiums, on state college campuses. It also said that judges must remove themselves from any case if any of the parties had made more than 50 percent of the allowable campaign contribution to the judge.

Menahan said the last-minute amendments violated the Montana Constitution by changing the original intent of the proposed legislation and also violated the single-subject rule for bills.

Menahan noted that the Montana Supreme Court has said these restrictions on bills are meant to prevent people from "being misled by false or deceptive titles and to guard against the fraud which may result from incorporating in the body of a bill provisions foreign to its general purpose."

The bill passed largely on party lines, with Republicans in favor. All Democratic legislators — and some Republicans — voted against it.

The language declared unconstitutional included:

  • A ban on any “political committee” from conducting voter-ID efforts, voter-registration drives, signature-collection efforts, ballot-collection efforts, or voter-turnout efforts at a state college dormitory, dining hall, or athletic facility.
  • A requirement that Montana judges remove themselves from any case, if a lawyer on the case had given a campaign contribution of more than $90 to the judge within the past six years, or if the lawyer had given the same amount to any political committee that opposed or supported the judge.

The lawsuit challenging the last-minute changes was brought by Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, the Montana Association of Defense Lawyers, four individual attorneys and Forward Montana, a nonprofit group that engages in political organizing to encourage young people to vote.
They asked SB 319 to be struck down in its entirety.

“Today’s ruling is a victory for our constitution and the rule of law,” said Raph Graybill, an attorney for the plaintiffs. “It sends a clear message that the Montana legislature is not above the law.”

Menahan chose only to void the two sections regarding judges and campus politicking that were added at the end. The remainder of SB 319 remains in effect.