Shed a Tear for Our Democracy

Yesterday, in the case Citizens United v. FEC, the U.S. Supreme Court
ruled that corporations have a First Amendment right to spend unlimited
amounts of money to influence election outcomes.

Money from Exxon, Goldman Sachs, Pfizer and the rest of the Fortune 500
is already corroding the policy making process in Washington, state
capitals and city halls. Now, the Supreme Court tells these corporate
giants that they have a constitutional right to trample our democracy.

In eviscerating longstanding rules prohibiting corporations from using
their own monies to influence elections, the court invites giant
corporations to open up their treasuries to buy election outcomes.
Corporations are sure to accept the invitation.

The predictable result will be corporate money flooding the election
process; huge targeted campaigns by corporations and their front groups
attacking principled candidates who challenge parochial corporate
interests; and a chilling effect on candidates and election officials,
who will be deterred from advocating and implementing policies that
advance the public interest but injure deep-pocket corporations.

Because the decision is made on First Amendment constitutional grounds,
the impact will be felt not only at the federal level, but in the
states and localities, including in state judicial elections.

In one sense, the decision was a long time in coming. Over the past 30
years, the Supreme Court has created and steadily expanded the First
Amendment protections that it has afforded for-profit corporations.

But in another sense, the decision is a startling break from Supreme
Court tradition. Even as it has mistakenly equated money with speech in
the political context, the court has long upheld regulations on
corporate spending in the electoral context. The Citizens United
decision is also an astonishing overreach by the court. No one thought
the issue of corporations' purported right to spend money to influence
election outcomes was at stake in this case until the Supreme Court so
decreed. The case had been argued in lower courts, and was originally
argued before the Supreme Court, on narrow grounds related to
application of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law.

The court has invented the idea that corporations have First Amendment
rights to influence election outcomes out of whole cloth. There is
surely no originalist interpretation to support this outcome, since the
court created the rights only in recent decades. Nor can the outcome be
justified in light of the underlying purpose and spirit of the First
Amendment. Corporations are state-created entities, not real people.
They do not have expressive interests like humans; and, unlike humans,
they are uniquely motivated by a singular focus on their economic
bottom line. Corporate spending on elections defeats rather than
advances the democratic thrust of the First Amendment.

We, the People cannot allow this decision to go unchallenged. We, the
People cannot allow corporations to take control of our democracy.

There are some things that can be done to mitigate the damage from today's decision.

First, we must have public financing of elections. Public financing
will give independent candidates a base from which they may be able to
compete against candidates benefiting from corporate expenditures. We
will intensify our efforts to win rapid passage of the Fair Elections
Now Act, which would provide congressional candidates with an
alternative to corporate-funded campaigns before fundraising for the
2010 election is in full swing. Sponsored by Sen. Richard Durbin,
D-Illinois, and Rep. John Larson, D-Connecticut, the bill would
encourage unlimited small-dollar donations from individuals and provide
candidates with public funding in exchange for refusing corporate
contributions or private contributions in amounts of more than $100.
The proposal has broad support, including more than 126 co-sponsors in
the House.

In the wake of the court's decision, it is also essential that the
presidential public financing system be made viable again. Cities and
states will also need to enact public financing of elections.

Congress must ensure that corporate CEOs do not use corporate funds for
political purposes, against the wishes of shareholders, with
legislation requiring an absolute majority of shares to be voted in
favor, before any corporate political expenditure is permitted. There
are other legislative approaches to limit today's damage, including a
range of measures proposed by Representative Alan Grayson, D-Florida.

These mitigating measures will not be enough to offset today's decision, however. The decision itself must be overturned.

We need a constitutional amendment specifying that for-profit
corporations are not entitled to First Amendment protections, except
for freedom of the press. A constitutional amendment is not a thing to
throw around lightly. But today's decision so imperils our democratic
well-being, and so severely distorts the rightful purpose of the First
Amendment, that a constitutional corrective is demanded.

Winning a constitutional amendment will be a long-term effort. The
starting point is for the people to petition their government to demand
action. Public Citizen with allies has launched such a petition effort.
Got to to sign the petition.

The Supreme Court has lost its way. Democracy is rule of the people --
real, live humans, not artificial entity corporations. Now it's time
for the people to reassert their rights.

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