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Law restricting political activity on Montana college campuses struck down

According to a state court ruling issued on Thursday, elements of Republican-passed legislation restricting voter registration campaigns and other political activities on areas of Montana state college campuses were invalidated.

Judge Mike Menahan of Helena has ruled that last-minute amendments made to a measure during the 2021 legislative session violated a constitutional prohibition on introducing content that does not fall within the bill’s title. The court also knocked down a section of the statute that said that judges must recuse themselves from cases if any of the parties involved made a particular amount of political donations to the judge in question.

‘By changing the law to include provisions targeting political activity on college campuses and judge recusal requirements, the Legislature changed the basic objective of the measure,’ according to the attorney general.

SB 319 was enacted in the last hours of the 2021 legislative session after revisions were made by a six-member conference committee with a Republican majority only two days before the session ended.

The bill, introduced by Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, started to amend the rules governing joint fundraising committees, which was later changed. Political groups were barred from conducting a wide range of activities in resident halls, dining halls, and “athletic facilities,” such as stadiums, on state college campuses due to the amendments made to the conference committee.

Furthermore, the law stated that judges must recuse themselves from any case in which one or more parties had contributed more than 50 percent of the judge’s maximum campaign contribution.

Menahan claimed that the last-minute additions violated the Montana Constitution by altering the original meaning of the proposed law. He also claimed that the revisions broke the “single subject” rule, which states that each bill must cover a single topic.

Specifically, Menahan noted that the Montana Supreme Court has stated that these restrictions on bills are intended to prevent people from being “misled by false or deceptive titles and to guard against the fraud that may result from incorporating in the body of a bill provisions that are contrary to its general purpose.”

The law was approved primarily along party lines, with Republicans voting supporting the measure. All Democratic lawmakers, as well as several Republican legislators, voted against it.

The following phrases were found to be unconstitutional:

A prohibition on any “political group” from conducting voter-ID campaigns, voter-registration drives, signature-collection campaigns, ballot-collection campaigns, or voter-turnout campaigns on the grounds of a state college dormitory, dining hall, or sporting facility.

Montana judges are required to recuse themselves from any case in which a lawyer involved in the case has made a campaign donation to the judge above $90 during the previous six years or if the lawyer has made the same amount to any political group that opposes or supports the judge.
Leo Gallagher, the Lewis and Clark County Attorney, the Montana Association of Defense Lawyers, four individual attorneys, and Forward Montana, a Missoula-based nonprofit organization that engages in political organizing to encourage young people to vote, filed a lawsuit challenging the last-minute changes.

They requested that SB 319 be declared unconstitutional in its entirety.

In the words of Raph Graybill, an attorney representing the plaintiffs, “Today’s verdict is a triumph for our constitution and the rule of law.” “It sends a strong message that the Montana legislature is not above the law,” said the author of the article.

Menahan opted to remove the two parts on judges and college politics inserted at the end of the document after it was written. SB 319’s remaining provisions are still in force.