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Thursday, December 7, 2023
Courthouse News Service
Thursday, December 7, 2023 | Back issues
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Californians Get Their Say on|’Citizens United’ in Non-Binding Initiative

SACRAMENTO, Calif. (CN) — Included in California's bulky 225-page General Election voter guide is a peculiar proposition that if passed by voters would direct the state's congressional delegation to work on reversing a Supreme Court ruling that gave the go-ahead to unlimited campaign spending.

Seeking to spark a national referendum on campaign contributions, Proposition 59 supporters want California's congressional delegation to pursue a potential constitutional amendment to the high court's contentious 2010 Citizens United ruling.

The advisory measure was initially blocked from the statewide ballot by a lawsuit from the anti-tax group Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association in 2014, but in January the California Supreme Court ruled that lawmakers have the power to poll voters through nonbinding measures like Proposition 59.

State Democrats quickly revived the 2014 measure and California voters will weigh in on big money in politics at the polls on Nov. 8.

Proposition 59 holds no legal weight and lawmakers are not required to pursue the voters' decision. It essentially acts as an official statewide poll on unlimited campaign donations.

Gov. Jerry Brown in the past has warned that advisory measures could "clutter" ballots, and he reluctantly cleared the measure in June without his signature. Proposition 59 is one of 17 initiatives on the statewide ballot.

If passed, the measure tasks the Golden State's 53-member congressional delegation with persuading other House members to take up overturning Citizens United.

In a momentous decision, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled 5-4 that unlimited campaign contributions by corporations are protected under free speech and that the First Amendment does not prohibit speech based on the speaker's identity. The narrow decision has resulted in an explosion of campaign donations from outside groups, with critics bemoaning the increased corporate influence on elections.

State Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, co-authored the measure and is warning voters that the Supreme Court has allowed corporations to "drown out the voices of real people."

"Corporations spend huge amounts of money to influence election results and make it harder for our voices to be heard. The Supreme Court was wrong and must be corrected," Allen says in the voter guide.

Along with Allen and the California Democratic Party, Proposition 59 supporters include Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders and billionaire activist Tom Steyer. The proponents say the road to amending the U.S. Constitution for the 28th time begins with voters in the nation's most populous state.

"In California, there is nothing more important that we can do as progressives than overturn the disastrous Citizens United Supreme Court decision," Sanders said in a speech highlighted by a Yes campaign advertisement.

The advisory measure has no official opposition groups listed on the voter guide, but it is opposed by a variety of California Republicans. State Sen. Jeff Stone, R-Riverside, calls Proposition 59 a "pointless" advisory measure that further clogs up the statewide ballot.

"Nobody likes the current state of politics in America or California. But Proposition 59 is just a 'feel-good' measure that does nothing to increase disclosure of money being spent in politics," Stone says in a ballot argument.

Critics warn against allowing Congress to "tinker" with the First Amendment and say that small businesses would be hampered by overturning Citizens United.

The majority of California's House members are already supporting actions aimed at overturning the Supreme Court's decision. Dozens of congressional Democrats support or are co-sponsors of resolutions attempting to overturn the decision via constitutional amendment, but the proposals have not yet had a committee hearing.

While record-breaking donation amounts have poured into most of California's 17 propositions, neither side of Proposition 59 has raised much money. According to elections officials, supporters have raised $375,000 while opponents have not reported a single donation.

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