Silicon Valley Assemblymember Paul Fong's legislative committee has until April 23 to consider whether Californians should be allowed to instruct their members of Congress to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in Citizens United v. FEC with a constitutional amendment. If Fong and his fellow legislators are serious about restoring voters' faith in government, they'll give real people a chance to vote on the Court's wrongheaded declaration that fake people (corporations) have constitutional rights.
The California proposal, sponsored by bay area legislator Bob Wieckowski, follows a long tradition of "voter instructions," some of them pivotal in the passage of constitutional amendments and even in the drafting of the Constitution. The 17th Amendment, mandating direct election of U.S. Senators, was adopted only after many states, including California, passed ballot measures calling on their elected officials to act.
Voters in California have been outraged by a runaway Supreme Court that ignored its own precedents to strike down important campaign finance rules and by the Court's assertion that corporations have the same constitutional rights as living, breathing people. The California legislature responded to public sentiment last year by calling on Congress to propose an amendment to overturn Citizens United. So far, Congress has done nothing.
While state legislators can appropriately "urge" their colleagues in Congress to take action, voters are in a much stronger position; lawmakers must answer to them or face electoral defeat.
Montana voters already have approved a voter instruction ballot measure very similar to Wieckowski's proposal. Last November, 75 percent of Montanans approved measure I-166, instructing their state officials to advance a policy that corporations do not have the constitutional rights of real people. The Montana State Senate responded this spring by becoming the first Republican-controlled legislative body in the country to call for a constitutional amendment to reverse Citizens United. Several senators explicitly noted that they were only supporting the measure because their constituents had collectively told them to do so.
Eighty-one percent of voters in San Francisco approved a similar measure last fall and Los Angeles voters will consider a voter instruction question on Citizens United in the city's May 21 election. Both questions were placed on the ballot by city councils that had previously passed anti-Citizens United resolutions. Those councils recognized that their own opinions aren't enough; they need to give voters the chance to weigh in directly on this important measure.
Five rogue Justices on the Supreme Court have undermined the very fabric of representative elections by allowing corporate CEOs and ideological billionaires to unduly influence our political process. The torrents of campaign cash that flowed into SuperPACs and non-profit groups last fall, often from secret donors, are bought speech that overwhelmed the free speech of ordinary Americans. When faced with a threat this significant, it's not enough for California legislators to pass a simple resolution. Unusual times call for unusual measures, and the Wieckowski proposal is precisely what democracy needs.
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