Calls to Overturn Citizens United Grow Louder

It is time to reverse the damage wrought by the Citizens United decision. Politicians, non-profit organizations, citizens groups, and even President Obama have protested the ruling since the Supreme Court delivered its contentious 5-4 decision in January 2010 that permitted corporations and labor unions to use unlimited amounts of their general funds to advocate for the election or defeat of candidates for political office. Here at the RAC, we have repeatedly called for the ruling to be overturned, largely guided by our tradition’s warning against the dangers of mixing money and politics and the Jewish values that call for public accountability in a system of governance. As it says in Deuteronomy 16:19: “You shall not judge unfairly: you shall know no partiality; you shall not take bribes, for bribes blind the eyes of the discerning and upset the plea of the just.”

There are only so many ways to overturn a decision by the highest court of the land: The Supreme Court could decide to hear a case that challenges the decision, or lawmakers could pass a constitutional amendment limiting the amount of money corporations and labor unions can spend in politics. Due to the record-breaking political spending and shadowy corporate influence unleashed by Citizens United in time for the 2010 midterm and 2012 presidential elections, both of these proposals have gained traction.

Passing a constitutional amendment is challenging but would allow legislators to respond to the decision. In early November nine senators introduced a constitutional amendment that would overturn the decision by giving Congress and individual states the legal authority to regulate corporate political spending. Eleven attorneys general sent a letter last Wednesday to Senate Majority Leader Harry Reid, House Speaker John Boehner, and other congressional leaders outlining their support for such a constitutional amendment.

The Attorneys General’s support for this course of action is significant because of the extremely long and arduous challenge of ratifying a constitutional amendment. In the history of the United States, more than 11,000 amendments have been proposed to the Constitution, and only 27 have passed. In order to become law, the amendment would need the support of two-thirds of both houses of Congress and then it would need to be ratified by three-quarters of state legislatures.

Even as state officials add their voices in support of a constitutional amendment, two Supreme Court justices indicated in February that it is time for the Court itself to revisit Citizens United.  In an order blocking a Montana court ruling that directly challenged Citizens United, Justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Stephen G. Breyer wrote that, “Montana’s experience, and experience elsewhere since this court’s decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, make it exceedingly difficult to maintain that independent expenditures by corporations ‘do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption,’” referring to the intent articulated in the Citizens United ruling.

On Sunday, the Supreme Court announced that it had accepted a petition by two corporations to overturn Montana court’s ruling that upheld a law in that state limiting corporate spending and influence in state elections. In other words, the Court will be faced with the question of whether the Citizens United holding extends to state bans on corporate state election spending; the Montana court had decided that Citizens United did not apply. While there is no timetable yet for hearing the Montana case, Justice Ginsburg and Breyer’s comments suggest that the Court might at least acknowledge that the Citizens United decision has had unintended and destructive consequences.

It is still unclear whether the damage wrought by Citizens United is enough to garner the political will and public support to pass a constitutional amendment or convince the Supreme Court to uphold the Montana ruling. However, as the calls from officials, lawmakers, and even Supreme Court justices grow louder, it is undeniable that our country must respond sooner rather than later to the ways that Citizens United tests our democratic ideals.

Image courtesy of Tim Sloan/AFP/Getty Images.

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Susan Paykin

About Susan Paykin

Susan Paykin is a 2011-2012 Eisendrath Legislative Assistant at the RAC. She is a native of Oakland, NJ, and recently graduated from Brandeis University.

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