Bernie Sanders’ New Bid to Overturn Citizens United Ruling

Daniel Hertz

Sen. Bernie Sanders speaks at a rally on Social Security and Medicare on November 17, 2011 in Washington, DC. (Photo: Karen Bleier/AFP/Getty Images)
Bernie Sanders, Vermont’s independent senator and the only avowed socialist in the U.S. Senate, announced Thursday afternoon that he has officially proposed a constitutional amendment overturning the Supreme Court’s controversial Citizens United decision from 2010. (Sanders is also an occasional contributor to In These Times.) That ruling gutted a portion of the McCain-Feingold campaign finance law, passed in 2002, which forbid electoral advertising by corporations, nonprofits and unions. Reactions to the decision mostly split along partisan lines, with Republicans calling it a blow for the First Amendment and Democrats predicting it would allow corporate influence to undermine the democratic process. Sanders’ amendment is identical to one introduced by Representative Ted Deutsch (D-Fla.) in the House of Representatives earlier this year. It is not, however, the only amendment aimed at reversing Citizens United. No fewer than five such amendments have been proposed, most recently in November, when half a dozen Democratic senators—including Dick Durbin of Illinois, the Senate Dems’ second-in-command—filed their own version. But the competing proposals are far from redundant. Most of the would-be amendments up to this point have simply given the federal government explicit power to regulate election-related spending by candidates, unaffiliated individuals and corporations; the Sanders-Deutsch measure goes much further, declaring that the Constitution only protects the rights of “natural persons,” and not “private entities established for business purposes.”
That kind of language is likely to be supported by many liberals and the Occupy movement, whose general assemblies often feature signs calling for an end to “corporate personhood.” Yet because Sanders’ proposal could be interpreted to deny all organizations—including not-for-profit advocacy groups, religious establishments and unions—any protection under the First Amendment, or the rest of the Constitution, even in nonelectoral circumstances, it will also probably raise vigorous objections from civil libertarians on the right and the left. The ACLU, for example, officially supported the Citizens United decision because it opposed the original (and much less restrictive) limits on speech in the McCain-Feingold law. None of the proposals are expected to reach the two-thirds majorities they need to pass in each house of Congress. But as we approach the first presidential election since the Citizens United ruling, Senator Sanders’ move may indicate that  the debate over the ruling’s effects is not going to go away any time soon.
Daniel Hertz is a senior fellow at City Observatory, an urban public policy think tank.
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