Court allows challenge to bill limiting election work on college campuses

Judge Mike Menahan denies state’s motion to dismiss case against SB319

By: - October 6, 2021 4:01 pm

The statue of Thomas Francis Meagher in front of the stairs of the Montana Capitol (Photo by Eric Seidle for the Daily Montanan).

A lawsuit challenging provisions of campaign finance legislation passed this year that restrict voter mobilization activities on college campuses — and indeed, the process by which those provisions were added to the bill — will be allowed to continue, ruled a Lewis and Clark County District Court judge on Wednesday.

Plaintiffs Forward Montana, a political advocacy organization, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Attorneys and several individual lawyers challenged the law, Senate Bill 319, in June, arguing that last-minute machinations to add provisions to the bill through the free conference committee process just before the end of the session violated proper process and the state Constitution’s single-subject rule. In August, the state, through office of Attorney General Austin Knudsen, asked the court to dismiss the case, arguing the petitioners lack standing.

However, First Judicial District Court Judge Mike Menahan denied the state’s motion on Wednesday, writing that the plaintiffs demonstrate standing and make clear claims of injury.

“In the present matter, Plaintiffs claim they each have a right not to be subject to legislation enacted through an unconstitutional process,” Menahan wrote. “Plaintiffs also clearly claim they will be injured if Sections 21 and 22 of SB 319 become law.

“These alleged injuries are sufficient to confer standing and raise a cognizable claim,” the judge continued.

SB 319, sponsored by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, is also one of the subjects in a separate suit that challenges a slate of laws affecting college campuses. The court in Lewis and Clark County halted enactment of the law with a preliminary injunction while litigation proceeds.

SB319 began its life as a bill allowing the formation of joint political fundraising committees, and while it didn’t exactly enjoy bipartisan support, it made its way through most of the session without making headlines.

This changed when the bill went before a free conference committee. Leadership appoints such committees to reconcile bills that pass with different language in each chamber, though they also allow for the addition of new provisions so long as they fit into the (often sometimes broad) title of the original bill.

! 2021-10-06 – Order on Motion to Dismiss

That means that these committees are often used to make sweeping changes to a bill’s content, generally with little discussion or public comment.

SB319 faces legal challenges because lawmakers used the free conference committee process to add two new sections to the bill: one preventing political committees from engaging in a variety of turnout efforts “inside a residence hall, dining facility, or athletic facility operated by a public postsecondary institution,” and another requiring  judges to recuse themselves in cases where an attorney donated more than $91 to their election campaigns (“one-half of the maximum amount allowable” in law) in the last six years.

In the June complaint challenging the bill, plaintiff Forward Montana said the law would prevent it from engaging in planned political speech activities in and around college campuses, while Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and a number of other attorney plaintiffs said the recusal language would require potentially hundreds of judicial substitutions.

The former section, the complaint says, violates the right to political speech and assembly, while the latter the right to the courts and a speedy trial. And the whole bill, it contended, violates a provision in the state constitution providing that most bills “shall contain only one subject.”

In a brief filed in August, Knudsen’s office argued the plaintiffs were asserting injuries that were “utterly speculative and hypothetical,” and that the new provisions in the bill all fit under the realm of campaign finance reform.

“Plaintiffs have failed to demonstrate they have a concrete, particularized injury with respect to SB 319,” the state argued. “Forward Montana has specifically failed with respect to Section 21, because it has failed to allege that it is ‘a political committee’ or that it conducts electioneering activities in the few places specifically identified in the new law.”

However, Menahan disagreed, writing that he’s satisfied Forward Montana meets the definition of a political committee, and that all plaintiffs are making justiciable claims of injury.

“A complaint should not be dismissed … unless it appears beyond a doubt that the plaintiff can prove no set of facts to support his claim which would entitle him to relief,” the court’s decision reads, citing the Montana Rule of Civil Procedure. “In other words, dismissal is justified only when the allegations of the complaint itself clearly demonstrate the plaintiff does not have a claim.”

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Arren Kimbel-Sannit
Arren Kimbel-Sannit

Arren Kimbel-Sannit is an Arizona-bred journalist who has covered politics, policy and power building at every level of government. Before getting his dose of northern exposure, Arren worked as a reporter in all manner of Arizona newsrooms, for the Dallas Morning News and for POLITICO in Washington, D.C. He has a special interest in how land-use decisions affect working-class people, which he displayed through reporting on the epidemic of pedestrian deaths in the U.S. for the Los Angeles Times and PBS Newshour. He's also covered housing, agriculture, the Trump presidency and more.