Vermont calls for Constitutional convention to overturn Citizens United: Is it a good idea?

Hating Citizens United is easy. Overturning it is much more difficult, but that’s not stopping some intrepid legislators from trying.

The hurdle is high: You may remember, from your middle-school Civics class [I didn’t], that to upend a Supreme Court decision of this magnitude, you have to amend the U.S. Constitution. One route is for states to hold a Constitutional convention. On May 2, 2014, Vermont passed JR27 by a vote of 95-43. The bill places the following language on the November 2014 ballot for voters to ask the U.S. Congress…

…to call a convention for the sole purpose of proposing amendments to the Constitution of the United States of America that would limit the corrupting influence of money in our electoral process…by overturning the Citizens United decision…

Ten other states are currently considering similar resolutions this year. I don’t remember if they covered this on Schoolhouse Rock, but it would take 34 states to trigger a convention to propose amendments to the U.S. Constitution.

Another way to override Citizens United is for Congress to pass a Constitutional amendment, which must then be ratified by 38 states. On May 28, 2014, the California State Assembly passed a bill that would put an advisory [meaning non-binding] question on the November 4th, 2014 General Election ballot, asking voters whether Congress should propose an amendment to the U.S. Constitution [it would be the 28th Amendment, in case you’re counting] overturning Citizens United.
The California ballot question would ask voters:

Shall the Congress of the United States propose, and the California Legislature ratify, an amendment or amendments to the United States Constitution to overturn Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission … and other applicable judicial precedents, to allow the full regulation or limitation of campaign contributions and spending, to ensure that all citizens, regardless of wealth, may express their views to one another, and to make clear that the rights protected by the United States Constitution are the rights of natural persons only?

Meanwhile in Washington DC, some politicians are taking a similar approach. During the current, 113th Congressional session, Senators and Congressmen have introduced 15 bills calling for a Constitutional amendment, which—using varying language—would either mitigate or overturn Citizens United. Of course, some of the sponsors of these bills–and many others who are not on board– are undoubtedly slurping up the tsunami of campaign donations unleashed by the Citizens United ruling they say they are trying to remediate. Given that reality, the odds are heavily against passage of any of the suggested amendments.

On the other hand, just because the Congressional route seems impractical, we need to be careful about states calling for and convening a Constitutional convention. I think I remember that such a convention can’t be limited to just one topic. It’s wide open and therefore fraught with opportunities for mischief and ill-conceived ideas. I recently read that 49 states have passed resolutions calling for a convention to propose some 700 different amendments. So, I shudder to think, in today’s extreme political climate, what kinds wacko ideas might worm their way in to a wide-open convention and make things much, much worse.

We can only hope that Congress comes to its senses, our representatives look beyond their own next election cycles to see what’s good not just for them, but for our democracy, and that voters push for what’s right. It’s going to be very difficult to put the Citizens United toothpaste back in the tube, but we really must keep trying.