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“Occupy Courts”: Movement Targets Supreme Court’s Citizens United Decision

Morgan Korn

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In the landmark 2010 Citizens United vs. the Federal Election Commission case, the Supreme Court ruled that corporations and unions could spend unlimited money on political speech. The 5-4 decision struck down part of the McCain-Feingold campaign law, which according to the court, limited the first-amendment rights of independent organizations, unions and corporations. Nearly two years after this decision, a new movement dubbed "Occupy the Courts" has emerged, vowing to overturn Citizens United. A dozen U.S. states have introduced legislation that would effectively amend the Constitution, the only way to reverse the Supreme Court's ruling. Most recently, two lawmakers from Massachusetts introduced "The People's Rights Resolution" that calls on Congress to "pass and send to the states for ratification a Constitutional amendment to restore the First Amendment and fair elections to the people." On Friday hundreds of people flocked to court houses across the U.S. to protest the two-year anniversary of Citizens United.

The Nation's Katrina vanden Heuvel wrote in a recent editorial that many local governments are taking action to end undisclosed corporate money in elections. City councils that have passed resolutions opposing Citizens United include Los Angeles, Oakland, New York, Albany, Duluth and Boulder. There are also Congressional members seeking a Constitutional remedy, including Maryland Congresswoman Donna Edwards; Representative Dennis Kucinch; Senator Tom Udall and Representative Betty Sutton; Representative Ted Deutsch and Senator Bernie Sanders; Representative Jim McGovern; Representative John Yarmuth and Republican Representative Walter Jones and Representative Keith Ellison.

The state that has taken a firm stance against excessive corporate spending is Montana. Its Supreme Court upheld 100-year-old election spending limits last December, essentially rebuffing Citizens United. If the decision is appealed, and it is widely expected to be, the case could be the first challenge to the controversial Citizens United decision.

Montana Justice James C. Nelson dissented in the 5-2 decision but opined: "Corporations are not persons. Human beings are persons, and it is an affront to the inviolable dignity of our species that courts have created a legal fiction which forces people — human beings — to share fundamental, natural rights with soulless creatures of government. Worse still, while corporations and human beings share many of the same rights under the law, they clearly are not bound equally to the same codes of good conduct, decency and morality, and they are not held equally accountable for their sins. Indeed, it is truly ironic that the death penalty and hell are reserved only to natural persons."

The fury behind the Citizens United Case stems, in part, from the creation of the "Super PAC" — a political action organization that can spend unlimited funds to elect or defeat a candidate. Their rise has altered the campaign trail, as the influence of corporate (and partisan) donors, who usually remain anonymous, grows. Americans are allowed to donate a maximum of $2,500 per candidate, but Super PACs provide a way to circumvent campaign finance law, accepting checks of any amount from an individual, union or corporation.

The one limitation: Super PACs cannot directly engage with a specific candidate, though many are seen as a "virtual extension" of a particular campaign. Karl Rove's American Crossroads Super PAC has raised $33.3 million, the Americans for Prosperity Super PAC, run by the Koch brothers, has pledged to spend $200 million in 2012, and it's estimated that 250 Super PACs will spend a combined $600 million to $1 billion during the 2012 election cycle. (For more on Super PACs see: It's a Bird! It's a Plane! It's -- It's Well Complicated)

In the above video, the Center for Public Integrity's John Dunbar tells The Daily Ticker's Aaron Task that little can be done to change this new era of money in politics.

"It's a speed bump," Dunbar says about state action to overturn Citizens United. "There's no higher authority of free speech" than the Supreme Court.

As a result of Citizens United and its Super PAC spawn, "Americans will have to work really hard" to determine who's telling them who to vote for, he says.