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Citizens United, Meet Democracy Nationwide

Former U.S. Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens may be retired, but he’s clearly lost none of the verve that saw him through 35 years on the court and landmark opinions for the ages like his scathing dissent in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Fittingly enough, the number of cities, towns and state legislatures joining him to condemn the court’s decision to hand unprecedented power over our democracy to the corporate elite seems to grow by the day.

Next week, citizens around the nation will take actions to spotlight that rising tide and the grassroots movement that is driving it. At a time when the obscene amount of money that went into Wisconsin’s recall elections has reminded us once again just what Citizens United has wrought, Resolutions Week events will remind America that democracy is alive and kicking in the growing momentum for the ultimate solution to the auctioning of our democracy: a constitutional amendment to overturn Citizens United and related cases.

This May, Rhode Island became the fifth state legislature to demand a constitutional amendment to restore free and fair elections to the American people. A resolution to that effect overwhelmingly passed the Rhode Island General Assembly, while more than 200 cities and towns across the country have passed similar resolutions at the local level. Many more states, including California and Massachusetts, and local communities are waiting in the wings.

They’re heeding the call of a grassroots movement that’s growing organically in every single state.  Average citizens like California high school student Glenn Kimball become outraged upon noticing that the court is getting the Constitution wrong and undermining the integrity of our democracy. Next, they gradually and doggedly rally their neighbors and local leaders in growing numbers, and persuade their local city council or state legislators to demand action from Congress. That process repeats itself in a different community literally every day on average.

Justice Stevens’ widely covered remarks last week continued to emphasize why. The Citizens United majority went against the grain of its own rulings, past and subsequent, when it claimed that regulations cannot ever take into account the identity of a “speaker,” let alone a powerful multinational corporation with perpetual life spending money to buy influence. The court also severely contradicted its own logic just this year by leaving in place a lower-court ruling that noted the need to protect the integrity of elections from interference by the contributions of individual foreigners living in the U.S.; it notably declined to explain why their non-citizen identity mattered at all.

Citizens United and the related rulings that gave rise to it also, as Stevens noted, prevent democratically elected representatives at all levels to from effectively ensuring that elections are not corrupted by corporations and the wealthiest among us. That’s why it’s fitting and proper that elected officials at all levels of government are responding to citizen outcry demanding a constitutional amendment, and echoing it themselves in such rapidly growing numbers.

This is, in fact, what American democracy has always done when dedicated citizens realize that the rights and voices of We the People are not properly being recognized in our democracy, and take action to etch that demand into the Constitution. Former U.S. Senator Bill Bradley recently echoed that point to columnist Joel Connelly, praising the Seattle City Council’s unanimous passage of a constitutional-amendment resolution as a nationwide model rooted deeply in our history:

“The only way to do it is a Constitutional Amendment,” said Bradley.  “It has happened before when people felt powerless before corruption.  A Constitutional Amendment gave us direct election of U.S. Senators.”


The Seattle City Council recently voted for a resolution calling for the overturning of Citizens United, joining about 100 other cities.  The resolution was widely seen as tilting at windmills – but not by Bradley.

“It’s great,” he said. “It’s how change begins. Now, you try to get states to petition for a Constitutional Amendment. And then you get groups.”

Far from trying to intimidate the justices in an allegedly unprecedented way or censor anyone’s ability to speak freely, as Citizens United’s small handful of defenders have taken to alleging, Americans like Glenn Kimball are at the vanguard of modeling what American democracy should look like even as they advocate for its preservation.

And just as with the suffragettes, the abolitionists, and the previous century’s pro-democracy reformers, future students reading about their actions and determination will do so with continuing gratitude. Americans dismayed by the unprecedented spending in this year’s campaigns and despairing

over the way it played out in Wisconsin earlier, would do well to join them, both next week and beyond.

Sean Siperstein is a Legal Fellow with Public Citizen’s Democracy is For People campaign. Follow the campaign on Twitter @RuleByUs, as well as the hashtag #Democracy4 Sale, for the latest on money and politics and the campaign for a constitutional amendment!