Dan Walters

By Dan Walters
June 4, 2016 – 4:00 PM

  • Pending bill aimed at overturning Supreme Court ruling
  • However, it denounces practice that California allows
  • Politicians rail against campaign money, but take it

State legislators – more precisely, Democratic legislators – worked themselves into a lather last month over what one called “the pernicious and pervasive role of money in politics.”

Those words came from Sen. Ben Allen, D-Santa Monica, as he presented a bill that, if signed by Gov. Jerry Brown, would place an advisory measure on the November ballot, calling on officeholders “to use all of their constitutional authority” to overturn the Citizens United decision of the U.S. Supreme Court.

The 2010 decision invalidated federal restrictions on so-called “independent expenditures” in campaigns, allowing corporations, associations, unions and other entities to, in essence, spend as much money as they want.

The author of the majority opinion, Californian Anthony Kennedy, saw it as a free speech issue, declaring, “If the 1st Amendment has any force, it prohibits Congress from fining or jailing citizens, or associations of citizens, for simply engaging in political speech.”

Underscoring that position, the American Civil Liberties Union blessed the ruling.

Since then, however, Citizens United has become a political shibboleth, particularly among Democrats from President Barack Obama downward who call for repeal, either by a court or via constitutional amendment.

“This is not just another issue,” Allen’s co-author, Sen. Mark Leno, D-San Francisco, added before the 26-12 vote on Senate Bill 254. “This is fundamental.”

Citizens United, Leno continued, “conflicts with every notion of what a democracy can be and should be.”

SB 254 is not the first effort to place the issue before voters. An earlier bill was held up by a court battle over whether advisory issues should be placed on the ballot, and it took a state Supreme Court decision to make it happen.

Allen, Leno and other California politicians may decry Citizens United as an assault on democracy. Brown said much the same thing when he allowed the earlier version to become law without his signature.

To read expanded column, click here.