Whichever way Californians vote this fall on Proposition 49, which aims to convince Congress to pass a constitutional amendment overturning the U.S. Supreme Court’s Citizens United decision on political fundraising, they will send a dangerous message to the rest of America.
Vote yes, in favor of nixing the court’s decision to remove restrictions on political spending by corporations and labor unions, and voters will be saying they want this done at all costs. With the Republican-dominated House of Representatives highly unlikely to pass anything that might restrict corporate political donations, a yes vote could conceivably lead to the first full-fledged constitutional convention America has seen since the 1780s.
Vote no, thus ratifying the Supreme Court’s opening the corporate political money spigot, and Californians will be saying the decision in Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission is OK with even one of America’s most liberal states.
That gives voters a Hobson’s choice: Whatever they do, there’s potential for significant harm to this country’s political fabric.
There can be no doubt of the danger in a California vote that might be strongly enough in favor of repeal to inspire other states to act if Congress does not. Although some dispute this, the odds are a constitutional convention would not be limited just to the issue that inspired it. It would not take many states to trigger such a convention, either.
For 34 state legislatures, aiming to create a federal balanced budget amendment, have voted since the 1970s to call a convention. At least four later rescinded their votes, but there’s nothing in the current Constitution allowing them to do that. The 34 – Michigan in 2012 being the most recent – make up the two-thirds needed to call a convention, even if most of their votes have been hanging around unnoticed for almost 40 years.
If just a few more states now voted to call a convention, aiming to repeal Citizens United, doubts about the rescinded votes could quickly become irrelevant and the House would have to call a convention.
At any such meeting, as at the first one which lasted four months in 1787, all subjects would likely be fair game. Would a convention sustain the Bill of Rights with its freedoms of speech, press, religion and association that have long been the essence of America, or would delegates truncate them?
Would Second Amendment gun rights be strengthened or weakened? Would delegates eliminate the Supreme Court-affirmed right to privacy that has led to abortion rights but is not spelled out explicitly anywhere in the Constitution – or would they beef it up? Would they eliminate the Supreme Court itself? What about separation of church and state?
Most legal experts agree an unlimited number of questions could be opened up, one reason there has been no such convention in more than 225 years. It could be a classic Pandora’s Box, many unknowns waiting to leap out.
But then there’s the message that would be sent by a no vote on Proposition 49: Even California’s mostly liberal voters don’t mind unlimited corporate and union bucks being dumped into politics.
Surely Gov. Jerry Brown, as veteran and savvy a chief executive as California has ever had, knew all this when he allowed the measure to go to the ballot without his signature, declining to veto it. But in his message permitting the vote, he did not speak to the dangers, only the foolishness of asking voters to decide something that “has no legal effect whatsoever.”
That reality might just give voters an out. The fact this proposition would not bind anyone to do anything is the basis of an attempt by the Howard Jarvis Taxpayers Assn. to toss it off the ballot. Using similar reasoning, the state Supreme Court in 1984 dumped another advisory measure from the ballot.
But the dangers in either a yes or no vote are potentially very real, if the state’s current high court doesn’t take similar action, and quickly.