A Ninth Circuit panel last week ruled unconstitutional a Montana election law prohibiting public disclosure of ethics complaints against government officials until after the case has been decided.
At issue is a dispute between Montana Rep. Brad Tschida and former Montana Commissioner of Political Practices Jon Motl over a 2016 ethics complaint Tschida had filed against Gov. Steve Bullock and Bullock’s Director of Commerce, Meg O’Leary.
Tschida, claiming Motl had delayed a decision on the complaint to keep it from the public until after Bullock’s re-election campaign, emailed a copy of it to other legislators a week before the election. Motl made statements to news media threatening to Tschida with civil fines and criminal prosecution, prompting Tschida to sue on First Amendment grounds.
The panel’s unanimous ruling partially reversed an April 2017 decision by U.S. District Judge Brian Morris, who found Montana’s ethics-disclosure law is unconstitutional when it applies to elected officials but not when it applies to unelected state employees. The panel found the law unconstitutional regardless of whether the complaint involves elected or unelected officials, but it let stand Morris’ decision not to award damages against Motl based on qualified immunity.