Democracy and Corporate ‘Personhood’

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On Monday, May 14, the Council unanimously adopted resolution 31380, joining some 100 other cities and other governments calling for a Constitutional Amendment to overturn the Supreme Court decision that granted corporations political rights as ‘persons’.  The 5 to 4 decision, in the case known as ‘Citizens United’ (the name of the corporate front organization that brought the lawsuit against campaign finance laws), essentially undid campaign finance regulation at the federal level and freed corporations to spend as much money as they want to influence elections.  It is not yet clear to what extent this also undoes state and local campaign finance regulations and even disclosure requirements.

It is unusual for the Council to take a position on a federal issue that is not directly related to the City’s ongoing work.  In this case there is a direct connection, as Seattle has long been in the forefront of campaign finance reform.  We pioneered disclosure and limits on contribution size, and even had a form of public financing in place in the 1970’s until the Washington State Legislature took away our authority to implement that.  While we are always searching for ways to improve our campaign finance management system, we are proud of what we have accomplished.  We believe that we can defend it against the implications of the Citizens United decision, but there is some risk that it could be affected as lower courts construe the Supreme Court action.

But beyond the integrity of our own election system, there is a larger concern with the future of democracy in America.  There have been many struggles over how to effectively regulate and limit the disproportionate influence of money in the American political system, and an ongoing effort to find the best model at the federal, state, and local levels.  That reflects the vitality of our democracy, as we work through such complex issues to come up with the fairest solution.  Many such situations wind up in court cases, and courts often have to make careful determinations about fairness and appropriateness.

But the Supreme Court did not carefully review the law and strike down areas that could be problematic.  Instead, they rendered a decision that essentially swept away the playing field, ending virtually all possibilities for federal campaign finance reform.  As journalist Jeffrey Toobin put it:  “The Roberts Court, it appears, will guarantee moneyed interests the freedom the raise and spend any amount, from any source, at any time, in order to win elections.”

It appears that the only way that can be reversed would be to amend the Constitution (unless the Court itself backs down in some fashion).  And the only way that will happen is through a grassroots movement for change.  That’s why so many cities, counties, and states are passing such resolutions, and why it makes sense for Seattle to weigh in.  Our own laws are at stake — and the health of our democratic system and the long term future of the republic.