Democracy vs. the Supreme Court

Who in the United States can provide the best solutions for promoting democracy: is it the majority of the people, or the nine Justices of the United States Supreme Court? One of the checks and balances the Constitution provides is a method to amend the Constitution, ensuring the people have the last say and most power in our political system. In United States history, this check has been used as a response to Supreme Court decisions that hurt democracy. Recently, the Supreme Court decided Citizens United, which opened the door to unlimited corporate and union political spending in election campaigns. This year, voters in California and Washington have the opportunity to participate in the amendment process to overturn the Citizens United decision. Some distinguished experts have said the fate of big money in politics should start and end with the Supreme Court of the United States.

While we can and should try to persuade the Supreme Court to overrule Citizens United and related decisions, a constitutional amendment offers the best path to move our democracy forward.

There is something many of us take for granted: democracy was not a right most people in the United States were given. Initially, only white, property-owning males could vote or run for election, leaving the nation to be run by, and for, the few. Throughout history, people in the United States have worked together to fight for a true democracy — the participation and representation of all people in the political system. While our nation’s vision of democracy has expanded dramatically, our work to ensure everyone has equal access to democracy is not done. Citizens United and similar court cases allow people, corporations, and unions to donate unlimited amounts of money in politics. These cases have limited our ability to provide equal representation and have given an elite wealthy few more say in our political systems than ordinary Americans. This prevents anyone not wealthy enough to compete in money-based politics from having full access to democracy in the United States.

The Supreme Court is a vastly important branch of government that we rely on for many solutions; however, the Court cannot provide solutions for everything. The truth is, the Court is somewhat removed from everyday experiences. This makes it difficult for the Court to fully understand the consequences of limiting the everyday person’s voice. We have seen this through decades of decisions on issues, including those unleashing big money in politics, encouraging gerrymandering, and stripping power from the Voting Rights Act. The best response in promoting democracy is therefore not through the Supreme Court, but through the people who experience being silenced every day.

Our history is filled with people who have understood the struggles of living without equal access to democracy in the United States. It was often those people who fought hardest to expand democracy for everyone. Frederick Douglass pushed to end slavery in America. Since Douglass himself was a slave, he understood the importance of his voice and saw how slavery limited that voice. Alice Paul and Mary McLeod Bethune were both women who lived in a time where neither had political power. They both fought hard for women’s rights, including the right to vote, because they understood that in order to have policies that took women into consideration, women needed political power. As a black man who lived in the deep south during segregation, the Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the need to enact the Voting Rights Act to ensure states did not engage in discriminatory practices to prevent people of color from voting. It was people who understood disenfranchisement, not the Court, that pushed for amendments that made federal poll taxes illegal, established the direct election of United States senators by popular vote, lowered the voting age to eighteen years, and gave DC electors in the electoral college.

Today, many people feel as though the wealthy few have more power in our democracy than ordinary citizens. Polls show that people understand we no longer have a system that works for everyone. Rather than stay silent and wait for the Supreme Court to change its mind, people are fighting back for political equality – the idea that everyone has an equal say in all levels of the political system.

Voters in California and Washington have ballot questions this election to take a step towards overturning Citizens United. These propositions instruct state legislators to do everything they can to overturn Citizens United, including signing an amendment bill and ratifying the amendment if passed. If successful, these measures help ensure that the state legislatures (which are ultimately charged with ratifying proposed constitutional amendments) and congressional delegations (which can help pass an amendment through Congress) are responsive to the voters’ will on this issue. These ballot questions will not impede progress on other, non-amendment reforms; to the contrary, success will demonstrate how important money in politics is to constituents, raise general awareness of the issues surrounding big money in politics, and provide an extra layer of political accountability. Furthermore, the momentum gained from such a large movement to lead to a quicker passage of other laws that can lessen the harms of big money in politics, like disclosure laws.

While the outcome of Citizens United was only narrowly decided by the Court, the people have no real say on whether the Court will decide to overturn Citizens United. Even if the Supreme Court does decide to overturn Citizens United, the people will not know or control what parts of Citizens United the Court would overturn. Will the Court to consider political equality as a justification to limit money in politics, or will it stick to only looking at corruption? Even if the Court decided Citizens United was wrong, nothing is stopping it from deciding later that it was right the first time, putting democracy on the line at any moment. On the other hand, a constitutional amendment provides the most stable and representative response, ensuring we the people decide how to get big money out of politics forever.

It is true that an amendment can only pass with broad support from all parties, but polls show that constituents from all sides of the political spectrum want big money out of politics. Ordinary people all around the United States want politicians to hear their voices again. Our nation’s history shows that when the people engage, amendments can and will pass. Seventeen states have already joined this movement in passing resolutions to overturn Citizens United, and more states will be coming with every election. Overturning Citizens United will not end the fight for democracy, but it will expand the definition of democracy and allow for more conversations on how to move toward a country that works for everyone.