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Justice Stevens and a Bold Vision to Reclaim Our Democracy

In the face of Citizens United and now McCutcheon, to save any semblance of democracy, we must amend the Constitution for the 28th time.

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Saying US elections are awash in money from corporations and wealthy individuals is no longer an outrageous statement. Sadly, today, most Americans would probably agree that this is a totally fair assessment, and that the problem is getting worse.

This hard truth was on display when the US Supreme Court recently decided, in a case called McCutcheon v. FEC, to further roll back limits on money in politics, building upon its now infamous decision in Citizens United only four years earlier.

In the face of the ever-growing dominance of wealthy interests over our politics, it is no wonder that we see a continued erosion of public trust in our democratic institutions. Democracy in the United States often feels frozen in place, especially at the national level. One look at Congress’s abysmal approval ratings, crossing at times into single digits, tells the story of the threat posed by money in politics.

But if there was ever a time to cast aside our political cynicism, it is today. John Paul Stevens, retired justice of the US Supreme Court, appeared recently before the US Senate to argue for a constitutional amendment to limit money in politics. In fact, Justice Stevens is calling for a great deal of change, which he describes in a new book, Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution.

One key amendment would reassert the important principles the Supreme Court has been steadily undermining, and reverse the march to a political future full of more super PACs and less democracy. It reads, “neither the First Amendment nor any other provision of this Constitution shall be construed to prohibit the Congress or any state from imposing reasonable limits on the amount of money that candidates for public office, or their supporters, may spend in election campaigns.”

This is exactly the kind of bold thinking we must return to as a nation. Rather than assuming that our most difficult problems are impossible to solve, we ought to remember that we have previously overcome extraordinary challenges. In our history, we have amended the Constitution 27 times, including seven times to overturn a Supreme Court ruling. We have done it to expand our democracy and to defend our democracy. In the face of Citizens United, and now McCutcheon, we must do it again.

In his dissent in Citizens United, Justice Stevens not only blasted the harmful effects of corporate campaign money, but also the assertion that corporations have a “free speech” right that entitles them to spend unlimited amounts of it. “Under the majority’s view,” he wrote, “I suppose it may be a First Amendment problem that corporations are not permitted to vote, given that voting is, among other things, a form of speech.”

The Supreme Court has elevated corporations from their traditional roles as state-created economic entities to a new status in which they now assert constitutional rights as if they were human beings. The effects of this go beyond campaign spending run amok. Amazingly, in another case now before the Court, Conestoga Wood Specialties v. Sebelius, a corporation has challenged the requirement of the federal Affordable Care Act to provide contraceptive coverage to its employees on the grounds that it violates the corporation’s “right” to the free exercise of religion.

Now the Senate is following Justice Stevens’ leadership. During his appearance before the Senate, Sen. Charles Schumer announced a vote later this year on a constitutional amendment similar to what Stevens himself proposed. The Senate will vote on an amendment sponsored by Sen. Tom Udall that would restore our power as people, through our elected representatives, to regulate money in elections and set overall limits on campaign spending. The amendment, which already has 39 co-sponsors in the Senate, is mirrored in the House by an amendment by Rep. Jim McGovern.

Opponents of constitutional amendments often assert that they are too difficult to pass, or too extreme a gesture for the country to consider. But what is actually extreme is the way the Supreme Court has made sweeping revisions to our fundamental and longstanding principles of democracy and self-government. Our constitutional amendment power must now be used to defend our republic.

Today, powerful interests are taking bold steps to remake the country as they would like it. We the people must follow Justice Stevens’ example and take bold steps of our own.

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