Plaintiff's attorney Raph Graybill, standing, speaks in front of District Court Judge Michael Menahan in the case over Senate Bill 319 on Monday, June 28. Credit: Mara Silvers / MTFP

HELENA — A district court judge Monday said he will temporarily block the implementation of two sections of a law regulating campaign finance practices, political organizing on college campuses and campaign contributions to judges. 

Lewis and Clark County District Court Judge Michael Menahan told plaintiffs and state attorneys he intends to issue the written order before July 1, when the Legislature intended Senate Bill 319 to go into effect. 

Attorneys from the state attorney general’s office did not say Monday whether they plan to appeal the ruling to a higher court or continue to argue the case before Judge Menahan.

The temporary injunction is a win for plaintiffs, including the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers (MACDL) and Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, whose counsel said the law could throw pending legal proceedings into “chaos.” 

At issue were two provisions of SB 319 that plaintiffs said were not substantively connected to the title of the bill, “Generally revise campaign finance laws.” Late in the session, the bill was amended in a special committee to include a section revising how political committees can operate on college campuses. Another late-added section prohibited judges from presiding over a case if they had received campaign contributions of $91 or more from a party who appears before them, including lawyers and their clients, any time in the previous six years. 

“To the plaintiffs and the folks in their respective class that they represent, there is an irreparable injury, to both free speech on campuses and to, essentially, the parties who are coming to Montana courts for some kind of relief.”

District Court Judge Michael Menahan

Attorneys representing the plaintiffs argued that the lumping of three different topics into one bill violated the state Constitution. 

“There really is no good faith reading of this bill that doesn’t find at least three distinct subjects,” said Raph Graybill, an attorney for plaintiffs. “These three different subjects regulate different conduct. They’re intended to be codified in different parts of the code … there’s simply no way to say that these are part of the same plan.”

Graybill also argued that because the amendments were added in a so-called free conference committee that did not allow for public comment, the Legislature had squeezed affected members of the public out of the process.

“These provisions were bolted on in a hearing with no public comment, 24 hours before the Legislature went home. The people with power made all the decisions. And our Constitution prevents that from happening,” Graybill said.

Attorneys for the state argued that the plaintiffs, including the political nonprofit Forward Montana, had not proved they had proper standing to bring the case. They also said there was no proof that the plaintiffs would be irreparably harmed if the law went into effect on Thursday, arguing that the policy regulating judicial recusals and campaign contributions would only affect legal cases filed on or after July 1, rather than proceedings that are currently pending.

“There’s no retroactivity provision that would have you go back and affect preexisting rights,” said Assistant Attorney General Aislinn Brown, referring to parties currently involved in litigation. “That’s kind of the crux of this issue. This court has an obligation to read the statute to be constitutional. There is no retroactivity provision. And so the way to do that is to read it as not affecting rights that preexisted July 1, 2021.”

The plaintiffs and their counsel disagreed, saying the provision of the law would throw ongoing cases into turmoil. In testimony, MACDL President Colin Stephens said he had already been involved in one criminal court proceeding where the judge who has presided over the case for roughly two years discussed whether he might need to recuse himself once the law takes effect. 

“I have no idea how that’s going to go if now he has to disqualify himself,” Stephens said. Speaking generally about clients currently involved in court cases, Stephens said it would be disruptive to have a change in judges.

“What I wouldn’t ever anticipate my clients knowing is that halfway through a trial, or even on the eve of trial, they suddenly get the rug yanked out from them because of who I donated to,” Stephens said.

Menahan, in closing, indicated that he agreed that Stephens and other plaintiffs could be negatively impacted by the law’s two provisions. 

“To the plaintiffs and the folks in their respective class that they represent, there is an irreparable injury, to both free speech on campuses and to, essentially, the parties who are coming to Montana courts for some kind of relief,” he said. 

The remainder of the bill relating to campaign finance regulation will not be affected by the preliminary injunction. 

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Mara covers Montana’s social welfare, criminal justice and legal systems. She also tracks policy and social issues that affect LGBTQ+ people. Prior to joining Montana Free Press, Mara worked at Slate and WNYC, where she focused on radio and podcasts. She got her start in audio journalism as an intern at Montana Public Radio. Contact Mara at msilvers@montanafreepress.org, 406-465-3386 ext. 3, and follow her on Twitter.