Mass. lawmakers now calling for Citizens United amendment

By Jessica M. Karmasek | Aug 2, 2012



BOSTON (Legal Newsline) - Add Massachusetts to the list of state legislatures that are voicing their opposition to the U.S. Supreme Court's Citizens United decision and that support a constitutional amendment to reverse it.

Late Tuesday, the Massachusetts House of Representatives passed a resolution calling on Congress to enact a federal constitutional amendment to reverse the Court's decision in Citizens United v. FEC and restore fair elections.

The House vote follows a state Senate vote last week, 35-1 in favor of a similar resolution.

Both chambers passed the resolutions just before the end of the annual legislative session.

Cities and towns across the nation have voted on similar measures.

In Massachusetts alone, more than 60 communities have voted in favor of a constitutional amendment, including Boston, Springfield and Worcester.

The state Legislature now joins those in California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont in support of such an amendment.

The 2010 ruling by the nation's high court in favor of Citizens United stemmed from a dispute over whether the non-profit corporation could air a film critical of current U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton.

The decision held that corporate funding of independent political broadcasts in candidate elections cannot be limited because of the First Amendment.

The ruling infuriated President Barack Obama, who criticized the majority in a State of the Union Address.

"The Citizens United decision is a tremendous threat to our democracy," state Rep. Cory Atkins, the sponsor of the Massachusetts' House resolution, said in a statement Wednesday.

"The very integrity of our political system is at stake, and I am proud of the House for passing this resolution yesterday and, along with the Senate, sending a strong message that our democracy isn't for sale."

John Bonifaz, the co-founder and director of Free Speech For People, said Wednesday the Massachusetts vote is going to carry "national significance."

"With this vote, Massachusetts lawmakers of both parties are helping to lead the way in restoring American democracy to the people," he said in a statement.

Pam Wilmot, executive director of Common Cause Massachusetts, said Wednesday she was "delighted" that lawmakers took bipartisan action to address the decision.

"A campaign for a constitutional amendment is no easy task, but the U.S. Supreme Court left us no choice. Only with a constitutional amendment can we address the problem of money in politics that it, with other decisions, has created," she said in a statement.

"Passing this resolution has put Massachusetts on the forefront of that critical effort, which, as the cradle of liberty, is where we should be."

Massachusetts, California, Hawaii, Maryland, New Mexico, Rhode Island and Vermont aren't the only states taking action.

Last month, the Montana Secretary of State officially qualified for the state's November ballot an initiative advocating for a ban on corporate money in elections.

The "Prohibition on Corporate Contributions and Expenditures in Montana Elections Act" would make it state policy that corporations are not human beings with constitutional rights, that money is not speech.

It also would charge Montana's congressional delegation to support a constitutional amendment to nullify the Court's ruling.

"Montana is leading the country in standing up to a wrongheaded Supreme Court ruling, and I think we'll see other states and cities following close behind," Bob Edgar, president and CEO of Common Cause, said at the time.

Both Common Cause and Free Speech For People have been working to support "Stand with Montanans," a statewide petition campaign backed by Gov. Brian Schweitzer and Lt. Gov. John Bohlinger.

The campaign gathered more than 40,000 signatures from state voters to place the initiative on the Nov. 6 ballot.

In June, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned Montana's campaign finance law, arguing that its previous decision in Citizens United required it to do so.

The Montana Supreme Court had ruled the decision was not in conflict with a state law that was challenged by a group of corporations. The Corrupt Practices Act prohibits corporate contributions in state political campaigns.

In its June 25 opinion, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 to reverse the Montana Supreme Court's decision.

"The question presented in this case is whether the holding of Citizens United applies to the Montana state law," according to the Court's one-page, per curiam majority opinion.

"There can be no serious doubt that it does."

Chief Justice John Roberts and justices Samuel Alito, Antonin Scalia, Clarence Thomas and Anthony Kennedy made up the majority. Justice Stephen Breyer issued a short dissent, in which justices Ruth Bader Ginsburg, Sonia Sotomayor and Elena Kagan joined.

Breyer said he would have voted for review of the issue but, given the majority opinion, decided not to.

"(E)ven if I were to accept Citizens United, this Court's legal conclusion should not bar the Montana Supreme Court's finding, made on the record before it, that independent expenditures by corporations did in fact lead to corruption or the appearance of corruption in Montana," Breyer wrote.

"Given the history and political landscape in Montana, that court concluded that the State had a compelling interest in limiting independent expenditures by corporations."

In a statement released shortly after, Montana Attorney General Steve Bullock called the Court's ruling a "sad day for our democracy."

"I am very disappointed in what the U.S. Supreme Court's decision means for state and local elections in Montana -- and for our entire nation," the attorney general said.

"One hundred years ago, Montanans passed an initiative to protect democracy, to give everyday people a voice that would no longer be silenced by a sea of corporate money. Their wisdom and the Corrupt Practices Act of 1912 have served Montana well for over a century, and could have provided the Court with the opportunity to revisit some of the fundamental fallacies underlying the Citizens United decision."

In light of the Citizens United ruling, most states with laws on corporate spending bans stopped enforcing their own restrictions.

From Legal Newsline: Reach Jessica Karmasek by email at

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