There have been 19 Supreme Court decisions, beginning in 1886, that have increasingly granted more rights to corporations and wealthy individuals. The two most recent decisions have put this gradual transformation on steroids.
In 2010, Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission held that restrictions on independent political expenditures by corporations, associations and unions were unconstitutional under the First Amendment. Corporate megacontributions are now considered a lawful expression of freedom of speech. Corporations now enjoy First Amendment rights that were once reserved for people.
In April, the 5-4 McCutcheon v. Federal Election Commission ruling struck down limits on overall campaign contributions that wealthy supporters may make.
Individuals will now be able to dish out contributions of up to $3.6 million to candidates, parties and political action committees. They will be able to write one check to maximize their leverage and direct all of it, through legal channels, to a favored candidate.
A group of people from around the state recently formed an organization called We the People Maine because of what they felt was the unchecked swelling of corporate privilege and an erosion of individual rights. In a few short weeks they’ve created a statewide network with more than 100 people circulating petitions that call for an Article V convention for the sole purpose of drafting a 28th amendment to the U.S. Constitution that states, “Corporations are not people,” and “Money is not speech.”
The new amendment would ensure that people, not corporations and wealthy contributors, control government. Article V of the Constitution specifies that two-thirds of the state legislatures may call for a convention to draft an amendment, and three-fourths of the states are needed for ratification.
The Constitution is truly a living document; it has been amended 27 times in our nation’s history. Amendments gave us freedom of religion and the right to possess arms. It took amendments to abolish slavery and to give women the right to vote. The 18th amendment made prohibition the law of the land, and the 21st amendment repealed the 18th.
We the People Maine organizers have been working long hours, organizing meetings around the state and collecting signatures. There seems to be a sense of emergency expressed by many who have signed the petition, a feeling that if something is not done now, in the face of expanding corporate rights and power, tomorrow may be too late.
The group’s petition was many months in the making. It was drafted by a team of Maine lawyers and reviewed by constitutional scholars who scrutinized each comma. The group is hopeful that the concise language in the document will serve as a model for petitions in other states.
We the People Maine must collect 70,000 signatures of registered Maine voters to send the petition to the State House where it will become the We the People Maine Initiative. The state Legislature will then do one of two things. It may notify Congress that Maine is officially calling for an Article V convention to address corporate personhood and money in politics, or it may hold a referendum election so that the decision may be made by Maine voters.
An amendment can also be drafted by Congress without an Article V convention. Approval by three-fourths of the states will still be needed for ratification. If there is a vigorous countrywide movement for a convention to draft an amendment that would check corporate personhood, Congress may be forced to act. A strong and well-organized movement will demand that Congress act in good faith and create an amendment that reflects the spirit of the initiatives sent to them by the states.
This writer slept through many of the high school history classes that dealt with the Constitution, never believing that the honored amendment process might actually be dusted off and used again. His youthful imagination would have to have been stretched for him to suspect that one day he might find himself, one among many, exercising this right.
Steve Burke of Warren is a founding member of the Midcoast Peace and Justice Group and We the People Maine. To learn more, visit wethepeoplemaine.org.