Citizens United against Citizens United
CITIZENS UNITED AGAINST CITIZENS UNITED: Do states have rights? Do citizens have rights?
Two dozen states—including Washington—appealed federal health care, arguing in part the new law raised the costs of state-provided health care. Now, similar numbers—including Washington—have joined with Montana to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to permit state-level restrictions on campaign expenditures and disclosures. Justices ruled out such restrictions in their sweeping January 2010 decision on Citizens United vs. the Federal Elections Commission.
In Citizens United, the Supreme Court argued that money in elections equals a form of constitutionally protected free speech, which opened the floodgates for unlimited, anonymous corporate campaign donations. Unlimited dark money invites corruption, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock asserted in his challenge to the decision.
Corporate corruption through political spending could and did happen in Montana, Bullock argues, prompting the state’s Corrupt Practices Act, passed by referendum in 1912 by voters who’d lost trust in a political system in thrall to the state’s mining interests. The state has an interest in protecting its elections for state offices, he maintains.
Washington voters had similar thoughts when they pressed for a referendum in 1970, believing the public had a right to know about the financing of political activity in this state. Initiative 276 became law in 1973 after being approved by 72 percent of voters. The state’s Public Disclosure Law establishes reporting requirements and sets limits on contributions to state and municipal elections.
“The public’s right to know of the financing of political campaigns and lobbying and the financial affairs of elected officials and candidates far outweighs any right that these matters remain secret and private,” the Act argues in its preamble. The law does not seek to (and indeed could not) govern federal elections.
Writing on behalf of 21 states and the District of Columbia, attorneys argue, “Although the states’ laws governing corporate campaign expenditures vary in important respects, they all seek to ensure that such expenditures do not undermine principles of accountability and integrity in state and local elections, while protecting residents’ rights to participate in the electoral process.”
Particularly vulnerable in this regard are Washington’s high court elections. The state Supreme Court frequently rules on matters of profound interest to corporations. Even before Citizens United, unions and business interests in this state had aggressively stepped up their spending on those otherwise quiet races, in effect threatening to place justice itself on the auction block.
Yet while Citizens United has flooded elections with a sea of millions of dollars in unregulated special-interest money, drowning out the voices of individual citizens, perhaps the ruling’s most immediately offensive aspect is its failure to distinguish between the individual and the corporation. One can vote, after all; the other cannot.
In his dissent from the opinion of the majority, Justice John Paul Stevens wrote, “Corporations have no consciences, no beliefs, no feelings, no thoughts, no desires. Corporations help structure and facilitate the activities of human beings, to be sure, and their ‘personhood’ often serves as a useful legal fiction. But they are not themselves members of ‘We the People’ by whom and for whom our Constitution was established.”
Corporations, he argued, are created by people. We grant them charters that confer certain legal rights and privileges, like the ability to enter into contracts, limited liability and perpetual life. These rights serve an important and useful role in our economy. But they are not the inalienable, self-evident human rights enshrined in our nation’s founding documents.
A large majority of Americans agree, believing that corporations already exert too much influence on our daily lives and our political process. An ABC-Washington Post poll conducted in February, 2010, indicated that 80 percent of those surveyed opposed the court’s Citizens United decision. In equally strong terms, a Hart Research poll released last year found that nearly four in five of registered voters support passage of a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Such an amendment—for indeed that is what it will take to reverse more than a century of legal thought—would distinguish the corporate from the biological. Resolutions calling for such an amendment have passed in several states and cities across the country.
Bellingham may join the effort.
City Council members Michael Lilliquist and Seth Fleetwood introduced the topic last week.
“The first week of June has been named ‘Resolutions Week’ by a broad coalition of organizations nationwide’” Lilliquist said. “Dozens of cities, counties, and state legislatures across America have already passed resolutions calling for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United.”
If passed by council, the resolution would join Bellingham’s voice to other cities around the nation in support of “amending the United States Constitution to declare that corporations are not entitled to the constitutional rights of natural persons, and further to ensure that the expenditure of corporate money to influence the electoral process is no longer a form of constitutionally protected speech and may be subject to justifiable regulation for the common good,” the resolution asserts. Congress hasn’t authority to overturn a ruling of the U.S. Supreme Court; however, Congress can amend the foundational document upon which their rulings are based.
An amendment clarifying who may participate in our democratic processes is well in keeping with the history of the Constitution and its amendments. Fully half of all amendments passed since 1860 have sought to define these matters. The last of these, lowering the age requirement of voters, was passed by Congress in 1971 in just four months.
It can be done.
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