Writing for the majority in the Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision, Justice Anthony Kennedy argued that independent expenditures by corporations “do not give rise to corruption or the appearance of corruption.”
Since then, Super-PACs and corporations have spent record amounts of money in elections nationwide. Corporate spending soared during the 2010 election cycle to $294 million, 427 percent over the previous midterm elections in 2006. Supreme Court Justices Ruth Bader Ginsberg and Stephen Breyer both suggested that given these “huge sums currently deployed to buy candidates’ allegiance,” Kennedy’s assertion doesn’t hold and the court should reconsider its ruling.
It will have the opportunity to do just that on Thursday when it considers the Montana Supreme Court’s decision in December to uphold the state’s century-old ban on corporate political expenditures in state elections. In February the US Supreme Court informed Montana that it could no longer enforce that law until further notice, and now it must decide whether to hear the state’s case. This is perhaps the most serious challenge to date to the Citizens United decision.
In a recent New York Times op-ed, Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer writes that the effects of not being able to enforce the state’s anti-corruption statute “are already being felt here.” He describes “corporate front groups funneling cash into our legislative races,” and bills “ghostwritten by a host of industries looking to weaken state laws,” including overturning a state ban on the use of cyanide to mine gold, and developers seeking “to build condos right on the edge of our legendary trout streams.”
Schweitzer notes that he vetoed the bills but “these big players will eventually get what they seek” if they are allowed to continue their efforts to buy the electoral process.
It is that kind of corruption—which Justice Kennedy minimized—that has moved dozens of local communities across the country to speak out during Resolutions Week, an effort to pass local and state resolutions calling for a constitutional amendment to get money out of politics. Over 100 resolutions have already been proposed.
People don’t want to see a repeat of Wisconsin, where more than $63 million was spent in the recall election ($50 million went to Walker)—much of it from out of state, including $24 million from outside groups. Local public officials also realize that they can’t raise the kind of resources a handpicked, corporate-favored candidate can now access. There is also an obscenely exorbitant presidential campaign on the horizon with a price tag expected to reach $2 billion or more, including hundreds of millions of dollars flowing in from wealthy and corporate interests. In May alone, conservative groups spent $20 million in just nine swing states and Michigan.
Legislators have clearly reached their own conclusion that there is an “appearance of corruption.” Twenty-two states and the District of Columbia have joined Montana in asking the Supreme Court to uphold the state’s ban on corporate expenditures. This coalition is a mix of red, blue, and purple states, including New York, Arkansas, California, Idaho, Kentucky, Mississippi, Nevada, North Carolina, Utah, Vermont and West Virginia. Senators John McCain and Sheldon Whitehouse also filed an amicus brief in support of Montana, writing, “Evidence from the 2010 and 2012 electoral cycles has demonstrated that so-called independent expenditures create a strong potential for corruption and the perception thereof.”
This Resolutions Week, many members of the Congressional Progressive Caucus, including co-chairs Raúl M. Grijalva and Keith Ellison, are supporting city and town councils and state legislatures as they push for a Constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United. Local efforts will be held across the nation: from Baker City, Oregon, to Huntsville, Alabama; Wichita, Kansas, to Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania; Provo, Utah, to Corpus Christi, Texas. Dozens of localities have already approved similar resolutions.
One event will be held in Minneapolis by the City Council, which is expected to pass a resolution calling for a constitutional amendment. A draft of its resolution reads, “Corporations are not natural persons, and only natural persons are endowed Constitutional rights”; and “Congress and the States shall have the power to regulate contributions and expenditures for elections and campaigns and to require public disclosure of the sources of the contributions and expenditures.”
“In Minneapolis there has been interest from several council members for many months in doing something in response to Citizens United,” Council Member Elizabeth Glidden, chair of the Intergovernmental Relations Subcommittee, told me. “We’ve been talking to colleagues in other cities, meeting with our Congressional delegation members, meeting with grassroots groups. We are responding to efforts at every level—from the grassroots up to the halls of the US Senate—that are trying to do something [about] Citizens United. Resolutions Week offered a good opportunity to express our feelings on the issue.”
Glidden said she is seeing the impact of Citizens United on two state-level constitutional amendment ballot initiatives—an anti–gay marriage initiative and a photo ID requirement for voters.
“We are seeing tremendous amounts of money flying around in this and in other electoral races,” said Glidden. “Cities are [also] impacted by what happens at the state and the federal level—[it] impacts our financing, the programs we can implement, and so on. So when things impact federal elections, and state elections, by the nature of how local government works they also impact local government.”
Glidden said the council will also call on Congress to support efforts like the DISCLOSE Act to limit the impact of Citizens United while working on the longer-term project of a constitutional amendment.
It is clear from the Minneapolis resolution and others across the nation that there is renewed energy at the state and local levels to clean up our politics and reclaim our democracy. The fight will be a long one, but it’s a fight that this country needs.
“Nothing happens unless you start the work,” said Glidden. “This is one step in starting the work.”