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Lawsuit takes aim at bill affecting Montana campuses, judicial campaigns

(KPAX) HELENA — Another lawsuit was filed Tuesday to strike down a law passed by Republican majorities at the 2021 Legislature – this time taking aim at language the suit says was unconstitutionally inserted into a bill in the closing hours of the session.

The suit from a county prosecutor, attorneys and a political organization says Senate Bill 319 was improperly “hijacked” to ban voter-registration and other political activity on parts of Montana college campuses and require judges to step down from certain cases.

The changes, made without public comment and passed by Republican lawmakers on the next-to-last day of the 2021 session, violate a constitutional requirement that bills include only one subject, the suit said.

The language on judges and campus politicking were inserted into a bill from Sen. Greg Hertz, R-Polson, that originally dealt with joint campaign fundraising committees.

“The creation of joint fundraising committees, standards for judicial conflicts of interest, and political speech on campus are independent and incongruous subjects,” the lawsuit said. “They are plainly unrelated.”

The suit, filed in state District Court in Helena, asks that the entire bill be voided as unconstitutional.

As of Tuesday, at least a half-dozen lawsuits have been filed in state and federal courts, challenging portions of at least 10 laws passed by Republican majorities at the 2021 Legislature.

The lawsuits have been filed by a variety of individuals, corporations, political groups, labor groups and even government entities, such as the state Board of Regents.

Tuesday’s suit also is the second legal action challenging a portion of SB319.

The bill dealing with joint fundraising committees initially passed both chambers of the Legislature on mostly party-line votes, with Republicans in favor. But a week before the session’s adjournment, Republicans sent it to a “free” conference committee, a six-member panel controlled by the GOP that can make any changes to a bill.

The committee met briefly on April 28, the next-to-last day of the session, and inserted language that included:

A ban on any “political committee” from conducting voter-ID effort, 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.

Republicans on the panel approved the changes, which went to the House and Senate floor that day and passed, on mostly party-line votes. Gov. Greg Gianforte, also a Republican, signed the bill into law May 12.

The plaintiffs in the case are Lewis and Clark County Attorney Leo Gallagher, four individual attorneys, the Montana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers and Forward Montana, a group encouraging political involvement by young people.

They also challenged the law on the grounds that it would restrict free speech on campus and wreak havoc with judicial schedules and court procedure, unconstitutionally delaying justice for criminal defendants.

“Not only will the process of determining who contributed to which judges be onerous, but the ensuing need to juggle cases will generate chaos and extraordinary delay,” the lawsuit said.