07/09/2012 10:43 pm ET Updated Sep 08, 2012

Auctioning Off Democracy

On June 22, George Washington's personal annotated copy of the Constitution including the Bill of Rights was auctioned off for almost $10 million. Just three days later, the United States Supreme Court reaffirmed its Citizen's United ruling which gave corporations the right to unlimited "independent spending" to support candidates to federal election office by summarily reversing a decision by the Montana Supreme Court that had upheld a state law limiting independent political spending by corporations.

While different in substance, these acts are similar in form in that they constitute frameworks for the auctioning of democracy to the highest bidders. While those frameworks are legal it is highly questionable whether they are the best for promoting the common good, equal opportunity and civic engagement

The good news, in the case of George Washington's copy of the Constitution is that the successful bidder was the Mount Vernon Ladies Association of the Union (Mount Vernon Ladies Association), the non-profit that owns and operates Washington's home and museum in Virginia. So, in essence Washington's constitutional copy is being returned to its rightful home.

It might not have happened that way, however. As reported before the auction, Francis Wahlgren, an auctioneer at Christies, suspected that Washington's Constitution would be "sold to another private collector or wealthy person who wants to lay claim to a piece of history."

The Mount Vernon Ladies Association had the financial wherewithal, and then some, to prevent that. Had they not, this American treasure could have ended up somewhere in a foreign country such as Germany, Japan, or even -- God and the founding fathers forbid -- Great Britain. (As an aside we must admit that we find it more than slightly ironic that Christies, the auction house that ran this auction of one of the most iconic of American symbols and historic primary sources, is headquartered in London, England.)

Instead, as the Mount Vernon Ladies Association said in the press release announcing its acquisition, the Constitution will be the "centerpiece" of its new Fred W. Smith National Library at Mount Vernon which is under construction now and will open in 2013. As noted in that release, "the library will serve as a place to safeguard Washington's documents and as a gathering place for leaders and scholars." The release went on to say "The Association will announce plans for its display and viewing at a later date." So, time will tell what this auction acquisition means for the citizenry at large.

It is already apparent what the Supreme Court's Citizen's United "decision of January 2010 means to average citizens. It means, in terms of the financing of elections, that their millions of voices have been reduced to a squeak and the voices of the very few -- the extremely rich and powerful -- have been turned into a roar. Here's the evidence.

In March of this year, the New York Times reported, "So far in this election cycle, outside spending by super PACS, corporations, unions and others totals $92.2. million, about two and one-half times as much as in the same period in 2008 and six times as much as in the period in 2004." The money is not just coming from corporations. Individuals are giving millions either directly or through organizations they control.

A million here... A million there... Pretty soon it adds up to real money... And, because of Citizen's United, unlimited amounts can come from just one person. Enter Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire casino owner. Adelson could be the poster child for the Supreme Court's Citizens United ruling "gone wild."

The New York Times in a June 24 editorial estimates that Mr. Adelson has already spent more than $60 million to support various Republican candidates and super PACs and has indicated a willingness to spend much, much more. That's not because he is an ideologue or fanatic but because he's an astute businessman. As a casino owner, he understands that the Supreme Court has changed the house rules and tilted the "odds" in his favor.

He knows that -- unlike before -- we are now playing "no limits" and because of that when you have most of the chips you should try to "buy" the pot -- or in this case the elections and those who will support your business and financial interests. That's not un-American. It's just playing by the rules and applying business logic.

The judicial logic of the Citizen's United opinion aligned with this business logic has enabled the auctioning off of democracy. The ease with which the majority dismissed the Montana case without a hearing and in a short unsigned opinion demonstrates that they felt no discomfort with this condition or their prior decision.

In a dissenting opinion written for the minority, Justice Stephen Breyer strongly disagreed with the majority's conclusions. He observed, "Montana's experience, like considerable experience elsewhere since the court's decision in Citizen's United, casts grave doubt on the court's supposition that independent expenditures do not corrupt or appear to do so."

Lord Acton's maxim applies here. It states precisely and succinctly, "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." The Court's Citizen's United decision fundamentally altered the power equation toward the powerful - when that is done democracy is placed at risk.

After the Montana ruling, Fred Wertheimer, president of Democracy 21 said "Citizens and the nation are not going to accept the Supreme-Court imposed campaign finance system that allows our government to be auctioned off to billionaires, millionaires, corporate funder and other special interests using political money to buy influence and results." We hope that Mr. Wertheimer is correct.

George Washington's copy of the Constitution was first auctioned off in 1876. It took 136 years for it to be brought back home again. Because of the Citizen's United decision and its aftermath, democracy itself has been on the auction block for two years. The nation, as we have known it cannot survive or endure under this arrangement -- not for another 134 years, another 34 years, or even three to four years.

Time is of the essence. We as citizens need to unite against Citizen's United. We can begin by electing officials who would support legislation such as the DISCLOSE Act, which would require super PACs to list their top donors as part of their ads and more timely disclosure of all donors. That's just the starting point. We then need to band together and advocate aggressively for complete bipartisan campaign finance reform ala McCain Feingold.

The Supreme Court has ruled. But, in a democracy, citizens rule. We can do that by working with and through responsible elected officials who are committed to reclaiming America for the electorate rather than the elite and to taking democracy off the auction block.