Judge Jeffrey Sherlock has effectively dropped a lawsuit brought by the nonprofit American Tradition Partnership against Montana election officials, and will be handing out fines to the conservative advocacy organization.
Capitol Reporter Dan Boyce tells us the sanction comes in response to ATP not providing requested information to the court.
The conservative American Tradition Partnership identifies as a social welfare and education organization.
It’s become well-known for filing several successful lawsuits against Montana’s election laws and for sending out advertising against Democratic and moderate Republican candidates.
ATP says its status as a social welfare organization means it can keep its donors secret.
And that brings us to this most recent decision by District Judge Jeffrey Sherlock.
Complaints were filed against ATP in 2008 and 2010 saying the group was breaking election laws. The Commissioner of Political Practices agreed and issued penalties to ATP. ATP turned around and sued the state for that decision, saying Montana’s election laws are unconstitutional.
“Actually the case was brought by them,” said Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock. He was bringing that up because in an ironic turn, this lawsuit is now serving to penalize ATP.
“I think the order signals the beginning of the end of their lawless activities in our state,” Bullock said.
ATP says as a social welfare and education organization it doesn’t have to follow the laws of political groups.
For the lawsuit, the state requested information from ATP to check this out for themselves. As Attorney General Bullock said, it’s a common practice.
“In any lawsuit you can ask for information from both parties, it’s called discovery and what happened here is they refused to comply with providing the information to us and to the court,” Bullock said.
This is information like expenditure records, donor lists, as well as directors and member information. Bullock says his office had been trying to get this information for months before Judge Sherlock issued his own court order for the information.
Judge Sherlock ordered the records be provided in July of this year, then extended the deadline until August 20th. ATP did not provide information for the discovery orders until the first of November, a stack of paper two inches thick. Those documents did answer a lot of the court’s questions, but not all of them—like employee records or the minutes of ATP meetings.
It’s hard not to pick up the tone of frustration from Judge Sherlock in his most recent order.
“The judge went so far as saying never in his 24 years of being a judge has he experienced a party like this,” Bullock said.
Sherlock goes that far several times, actually.
ATP will need to pay the state’s attorney fees for this case and can be fined for the original complaints brought against it in 2008 and 2010. And ATP still has to provide the information requested in the discovery.
Sherlock says the court is no longer interested in hearing objections from ATP, all the court wants is answers.
ATP Executive Director Donny Ferguson released a statement , saying “we are disappointed in Judge Sherlock’s ruling but will honor it and will continue our fight to protect…our first amendment right to speak free from government interference and regulation.”
See Judge Sherlock’s order here: