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Supreme Court ruling sparks fresh debate over California campaign finance reform

by Susannah Kopecky, published

While some cheer for the quick and painful erosion of mindless campaign finance regulations, others rue the day the funding restrictions were ever questioned.  Those who appear to be shouting the loudest also tend to be those who quickly point to “big business” as the root of all evil.  San Diego and Los Angeles are currently hot spots of campaign finance reform/free speech decisions, and this month, San Diego was once more on the map after a state judge followed the example set by the Supreme Court ruling in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission. Where did this sudden trend to question campaign finance regulations come from? And why should we, as individuals even care?

Let’s take a trip back to March 2009, when Citizens United first brought its case before the top court of the land. First argued almost exactly one year ago, this was the case which started over a possibly unflattering documentary on Hillary Clinton, and ended with a mandate: a rallying cry for all who felt the current restrictive campaign finance system curtailed the American right to freedom of expression.

In this federal case, the judges recognized a need to walk a thin line; in this case, a driving concern was taking care to resolve the issue “without chilling political speech.” It was ultimately determined, however, that the case could “not be resolved on a narrower ground without chilling political speech, speech that is central to the First Amendment’s meaning and purpose.”  The court also felt that specific campaign finance regulations served as bans on free speech not only for corporations, but political action committees (PACs). Thus, the court ruled that the widely-maligned PAC (and union), even if formed by a specific business, “can still speak, for a PAC is a separate association from the corporation.” The judges treated the PAC, a group formed by individuals interested in furthering a cause, not as an evil entity, but as one representation of free individuals gathering together to petition for a cause, as protected by the Constitution: “Because speech is an essential mechanism of democracy—it is the means to hold officials accountable to the people—political speech must prevail against laws that would suppress it by design or inadvertence. Laws burdening that purpose are subject to strict scrutiny…”

Despite the fact that the highest judges in the land see federal campaign finance reform as a restriction on free speech, many state and local leaders are still loathe to accept fewer restrictions on campaign contributions, even though individuals are assuredly affected by such regulations. According to Southern California Public Radio, Congress is already dipping its toes into the water and thinking about ways to thwart the court’s move. SCPR pointed out that Debra Bowen, the California Secretary of State, seemed nonplussed and unmoved by the decision:  “Bowen says California law already restricts corporate contributions, capping them at the same amount individuals are allowed to give.”

Bowen oversees a restrictive campaign finance reform system in California, a system already beginning to draw increasing fire in state courts.

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