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Judge blocks law banning campus political activity

Judicial conflict-of-interest law blocked, too
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Posted at 10:27 AM, Jun 29, 2021
and last updated 2021-06-29 12:27:35-04

HELENA — A state judge has blocked portions of a new law that ban voter-registration drives and other political activity on state college campuses and would require judges to recuse themselves from cases involving attorneys who are political donors.

District Judge Mike Menahan of Helena said Monday he’d issue a preliminary injunction preventing the law from taking effect this Thursday, while he decides the larger issue of the law’s constitutionality.

Menhan made his ruling from the bench Monday, but said he’d have a written order by Thursday.

Menhan said in court Monday that he temporarily blocked the language on campus political activity and judicial recusal because it has a potential to cause harm, if it takes effect, by violating free-speech rights and disrupting the state judicial system.

The ruling comes in a lawsuit seeking to invalidate portions of Senate Bill 319, which was passed by the Republican majority in the 2021 Legislature.

The suit filed earlier this month by a county prosecutor, several attorneys and a political organization says the language on campus political activity and judicial ethics was improperly inserted into a bill that deals primarily with joint campaign fundraising rules.

Those changes, made during the final days of the Legislature in a conference committee, violate the constitutional requirement that bills have only a single subject, the lawsuit argued.

“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.

The inserted language banned 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.

It also says Montana judges most 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.

The suit and an attorney who testified at Monday’s hearing said the conflict-of-interest requirement for judges could severely disrupt operation of the courts, by forcing many judges off cases that they’ve been presiding over for some time, or preventing multiple judges from presiding over various cases in the future.