WASHINGTON — Sen. Al Franken launched a petition on Tuesday calling for the overturning of the U.S. Supreme Court decision known as Citizens United, the 2010 ruling that has been widely held responsible for allowing an unprecedented influx of anonymous corporate money into local and national politics.
By Friday, the site-based petition had received nearly 229,000 individually verified signatures on MoveOn.org, including a lengthy list of outraged and pleading comments.
“In Citizens United, the Supreme Court ruled for the first time that corporations are guaranteed the same free speech rights as real people to influence elections,” Franken told MintPress.
“This is wrong and it threatens our democracy. At a very minimum, Congress needs to push for greater transparency to rein in this out of control spending. But that’s not enough – I’ll keep fighting to fully end Citizens United once and for all.”
On the face of it, there would appear to be little chance of overturning the Citizens United decision. There is no appeals process for a Supreme Court decision, and Congress would be barred from making most substantive legislative tweaks.
The only real alternative then, would be a constitutional amendment, but that’s a notable long shot. Such attempts have succeeded only 27 times in the country’s history –10 of which involved the Bill of Rights — out of more than 11,500 attempts, according to Senate figures.
Still, an amendment movement aimed at overturning the Citizens United decision has been underway since shortly after the justices ruled in 2010. And while activists say the grassroots response has been both vociferous and notably widespread, a more readily measurable indicator of progress is also available: the steadily growing number of states, cities and municipalities that have passed formal resolutions in favor of an amendment.
To date, 16 states plus the District of Columbia have passed formal resolutions condemning the Citizens United ruling and impacts, and supporting a constitutional amendment. States that passed such resolutions in 2013 included Oregon, Delaware, Illinois, Maine and West Virginia. And a ballot initiative may currently be shaping up in Arkansas.
“Colorado and Montana put the issue to a referendum during the 2012 election, and that really allowed us to see what voters think. Both passed with roughly 75 percent of the vote,” Calvin Sloan, a legislative representative for People For the American Way, an advocacy group, told MintPress.
“Interestingly, that 75 percent has been consistent across the board whenever this issue has come up for a vote, including at the city level. That’s clearly high, particularly in a political environment where people can’t seem to agree on anything. Voters seem to agree that this is a big problem that needs a big solution.”
Constitutional amendments are notoriously difficult to pass, but there are multiple ways to go about doing so. Thus far, nearly all successful amendments have been proposed by Congress (two-thirds of members must vote to do so) and then been ratified by legislatures or conventions in three-quarters of the states.
Yet Article Five of the Constitution also allows amendment proposals to percolate up from the states, if two-thirds of the states formally favor doing so, though this route has yet to be successful. To do so around Citizens United, advocates will need to roughly double the number of state resolutions that they currently have.
“We’re well aware of how difficult the process is to pass amendment, as well it should be. But there are times when it’s necessary and we feel that this is one of them,” Sloan said.
“In general the movement is gaining momentum, as every day it becomes clearer that the current system is failing us and needs to be overhauled. And there’s long history of the American people using this process, including to reverse damages inflicted by the Supreme Court – the prohibition of slavery, women’s suffrage and other fights have all had to rely on Article Five to expand the democratic process.”
Perhaps the most important momentum toward pushing additional states to adopt resolutions is coming from local-level government bodies. More than 500 cities, towns and municipalities have offered similar resolutions, covering nearly all of the country’s major metropolitan areas, including New York City, Los Angeles, San Francisco, Chicago, and Philadelphia.
Indeed, in 2012 the U.S. Conference of Mayors, which represents all 1,400 cities in the country with over 30,000 people, unanimously adopted a resolution calling for such a constitutional amendment.
“The Conference should adopt the position that corporations should not receive the same legal rights as individual human beings,” Sam Adams, mayor of Portland, Ore., and the resolution’s main sponsor, said at the time. “[T]he USCM should advocate to Congress that the most urgent action needed is to enact legislation to reverse the impacts of the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, which has allowed unlimited corporate donations to influence the outcome of our elections.”
Today, organizing work is continuing in small towns across the country to try to get voters and municipal bodies to formalize their frustrations with the fallout from the Citizens United decision.
Aquene Freechild, a senior organizer with Public Citizen a watchdog group, recently spent time discussing the issue in several small towns in Iowa and Illinois.
“This movement is still very much alive there, as it is in towns all across the country,” she said. “There’s lots of activity because there is a greater understanding today of how much impact this decision can have on state and local governments.”
Freechild notes that one particularly weighty conservative backer, Americans for Prosperity, spent around $30,000 during the last election cycle in the small town of Coralville, Iowa, where the population is under 20,000. And across the country, the group, the main political arm of the billionaire Koch brothers, spent a record $122 million during 2012, according to the Center for Public Integrity, a watchdog group.
“People in Coralville were floored, largely because this was outside money trying to change a local election,” Freechild said. “But even if a Coralville resident had been behind this, spending that outsized amount of money to influence a process that should be ‘one voter, one vote’ – that isn’t the way that most Iowans want to see government run.”
At the federal level, in addition to Franken, 158 other senators and representatives have co-sponsored amendment resolutions, with 14 amendment proposals having been introduced in either the House or Senate during the current session of Congress alone, with the most popular currently before the Judiciary Committee.
The issue was formally included in the 2012 platform for the Democratic Party. And President Barack Obama has repeatedly intimated his own disenchantment with the effects of the Citizens United decision, suggesting it has made the entire political system function more poorly.
“I continue to believe that Citizens United contributed to some of the problems we’re having in Washington right now,” the president said in October. “You have some ideological extremists who have a big bankroll, and they can entirely skew our politics.”
Obama, who has also backed calls to pursue a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United, was speaking following arguments in another Supreme Court that has critics of money in politics worried. While the Citizens United decision largely did away with spending limits by anonymous corporate entities, the new case – McCutcheon v. FEC – would do away with these limits for individuals. That ruling is expected in coming months.
Some analysts have suggested that the current composition of the Supreme Court, under Chief Justice John Roberts, could be among the most corporation-friendly courts in U.S. history. Indeed, last summer one of Roberts’ own colleagues, Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg, called the current Supreme Court “one of the most activist in history.”
Such characterization keeps advocates focused on the spectrum of issues at hand.
“The amendment movement is not occurring in a vacuum. We’re seeing a widespread commitment to reform from both a constitutional and legislative perspective,” Sloan said.
“Newly floated public financing bills, disclosure bills – all of this is part of the movement to re-examine the role of corporate power in the political sphere. Of course the goal is to pass an amendment, but it’s also to change the culture and to pass strong new legislation. The goal is to have a government that truly is of, by and for the people.”