HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Another lawsuit has been filed to challenge a new law that bans voter registration and get-out-the-vote efforts on college campuses in Montana and also requires judges to recuse themselves from cases if they have received campaign donations from anyone involved in the case.
Forward Montana, The Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher and other attorneys filed the complaint Tuesday against the state of Montana in District Court in Helena.
It asks District Judge Michael McMahon to declare the law unconstitutional and seeks an order to block the state from enforcing it.
Montana’s Constitution requires that bills contain only a single subject and prevents the Legislature from amending laws so much during the process that they change their original purpose.
The plaintiffs argue a campaign finance bill to allow groups of candidates to create joint fundraising committees was hijacked in the final hours of the legislative session. They say it was amended without public comment to require judges to recuse themselves from cases if an attorney or other party involved in a case before them had donated, directly or indirectly, to the judge's election campaign.
“If the provision takes effect on July 1, it will cause chaos in the judiciary by forcing the removal of judges from hundreds of pending cases in Montana,” the plaintiffs said in a statement.
The legislation violates attorneys' First Amendment rights to make campaign donations, the complaint states.
The bill was also changed during a conference committee meeting to make it more difficult for a civic leadership group at the University of Montana to receive funding. It made a $5-per-semester fee opt-in instead of opt-out and also banned voter registration activities in public college dorms, dining halls and at athletic events.
“Our democracy works best when everyone is involved, not just a few lawmakers behind closed doors,” said Kiersten Iwai, executive director of Forward Montana, which works to build political power among young Montanans. “The hearing for this bill lasted only 16 minutes with no opportunity for public input. That’s the definition of closed-door lawmaking.”
The Montana Board of Regents has also filed a complaint questioning the constitutionality of the provisions affecting college campuses as infringing on its constitutional right to oversee the university system.
Because Senate Bill 319 contains multiple subjects “and because it underwent such contortions during its passage through the legislature — in closed hearings, after the original bill passed both houses, and without any public participation,” the bill violates the state Constitution and is void, the complaint filed Tuesday argues.
Colin Stephens, president of the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers, noted that the complaint has drawn support from prosecutors and defense attorneys.
“Any time I can stand side-by-side with Leo Gallagher is an interesting but good time," Stephens said in a statement. “Bad legislation makes strange bedfellows.”
Gov. Greg Gianforte “generally does not comment on ongoing litigation," spokesperson Jack O'Brien said in response to an email seeking comment on the latest lawsuit. Eight lawsuits have been filed challenging 11 bills passed by the 2021 Legislature.