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Can Californians Vote on Citizens United? State Supreme Court to Decide

by Carson Bolter, published

The California Supreme Court will consider whether or not voters will be allowed to weigh in on the Citizens United v. FEC decision in 2016. The proposed measure is part of an ongoing effort to get Congress to pass a constitutional amendment that would overturn the U.S. Supreme Court's decision.

A similar proposition made headlines in 2014, but the California Supreme Court ruled that it would not appear on the ballot after the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association filed a lawsuit claiming that lawmakers do not have the authority to use "legislative power for a public opinion poll."

The measure itself would have no legal effect even if California voters approved it. The controversial decision is not looked on favorably by many Californians and Americans at large, but federal lawmakers would be obligated to act one way or another based on how state voters respond.

For those unfamiliar with the history of Citizens United, the controversy began in January 2008 when the conservative lobbying group, Citizens United, wanted to air a film called, "Hillary: The Movie." The film was set to be released on the Internet and cable TV.

However, a lower court ruled that this violated the Bipartisan Campaign Reform Act (BCRA) because section 203 of the law states, "an electioneering communication as a broadcast, cable, or satellite communication that mentioned a candidate within 60 days of a general election or 30 days of a primary, and prohibits such expenditures by corporations and unions."

The issue was brought to the Supreme Court, resulting in the BCRA provisions being struck down. This means that private corporations, labor unions, and certain special interest groups can spend an unlimited amount of money on these types of political activity.

One public opinion poll shows that 80% of Americans disapprove of the Supreme Court's decision in this case, and widely believe it will only make corruption in Washington worse.

The measure in California that would allow voters to have their say at the ballot box would likely echo this sentiment. However, the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Association argued that it was an "illegitimate exercise of legislative power," and claimed that placing this initiative on the ballot was an attempt by the Democratic Party to increase voter turnout.

There are many Republicans and Democrats who oppose the Citizens United decision. It already allows for unlimited contributions to political campaigns from private corporations, labor unions, and special interest groups.

Yet, while people talk about the political spending of these groups, the two most influential private corporations in the U.S. - the Republican and Democratic parties -- are raking in a hefty sum in taxpayer-funded support.

Last year’s federal budget included an amendment that raised the limit on contributions to political parties for both parties to ten times their previous limit.

The discussion of campaign finance and money in politics often revolves around the Citizens United decision. The California measure is meant to send a message, but it could never be anything more than that since a state proposition (one with no legal implications) can't bind Congress to initiate legislation or the amendment process.

Still, the California Supreme Court will determine whether or not the measure will appear on the November 2016 ballot.

Photo Credit: Sean Locke Photography /


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