By Laura Zuckerman
(Reuters) - A federal appeals court on Tuesday ordered that a Montana law limiting campaign contributions to candidates for state office remain in effect at least through the general election in November.
The move by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals upheld and extended a ruling it issued last week that temporarily reinstated Montana's right to regulate campaign contributions, after a lower court struck down the restrictions earlier this month.
The legal fight over Montana's campaign finance laws has been closely watched following a 2010 U.S. Supreme Court decision that found corporations and unions had a constitutional free-speech right to spend freely to support or oppose political candidates.
Montana law caps contributions by individuals and political committees at $630 for gubernatorial candidates, $310 for other statewide offices and at $160 for all other public offices.
Total limits for political parties are $22,600 for governor, $8,150 for other statewide candidates, $1,300 for state senators and $800 for all other public offices. Donations by political action committees to candidates for the U.S. Senate and House are capped at $2,650 and $1,600 respectively.
American Tradition Partnership, a Washington conservative lobbying firm, and other groups sued last year in federal court, saying that Montana's caps on campaign contributions violated free-speech rights.
Earlier this month, U.S. District Judge Charles Lovell found that the caps on donations by individuals, political action committees and political parties were unconstitutional and ordered that they not be enforced.
Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock responded by asking 9th Circuit judges to block Lovell's order, saying it "drastically alters the status quo" for candidates who had been campaigning for nearly two years based on rules in place for nearly two decades.
Tuesday's decision said existing law should remain in place while Montana appeals the lower court decision in part because of "the public's substantial interest in the stability of its electoral system in the final weeks leading to an election."
Bullock described the decision to leave the limits in place for the time being as "an important victory."
"Montanans put a high value on the integrity and fairness of our election system, and the court has allowed us to maintain our citizen democracy rather than putting our elections up for auction to the highest bidder," he said in a statement.
American Tradition Partnership did not respond to requests for comment.
(Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Cynthia Johnston and Peter Cooney)