The California Legislature this week asked Congress to overturn the Supreme Court's ruling in the controversial Citizens United campaign spending case and curb the influence of corporate money in politics.
If 34 states ask, Congress would be required to hold a constitutional convention to draft an amendment.
In Citizens United, the court ruled that corporations have free speech rights under the First Amendment to independently spend unlimited amounts supporting candidates and measures. The 2010 ruling unleashed larger bouts of spending in national, state and local campaigns by corporations, unions and nonprofit organizations.
Assemblyman Mike Gatto (D-Los Angeles) was among the many voices denouncing the Citizens United ruling. Both houses of the state legislature approved his Joint Assembly Resolution 1, in which California asks Congress to draft a law overturning Citizens United.
There are two ways to amend the Constitution. One is for two-thirds of Congress to propose an amendment which becomes law only after three-quarters of the states (38 of them) ratify it.
The other way is for 34 state legislatures (two-thirds of the 50 states) to pass bills calling on Congress to hold a constitutional convention. The California legislature did so Monday, becoming the second state, after Vermont, to ask Congress to draft a law overturning Citizens United. Gatto said the Illinois legislature was also considering taking the same action.
If the convention results in a proposed amendment, it would have to be ratified by 38 states to become law.
Gatto said he objected to Citizens United because it gave corporations, which don't die, cannot be jailed and can be run from other states and countries, human-like rights.
"And the idea that they have the exact same free speech rights as human beings, it's something that I'm not sure our founding fathers would agree with," Gatto said.
Advocates who support the Citizens United decision say it empowers free speech among small and mid-size businesses and organizations that might not have the lawyers and other corporate resources of bigger companies.
He said that some past efforts to force Congress to hold a constitutional convention have ended short of the 34-state approval step when Congress wrote and passed its own amendment for states to ratify. The repeal of Prohibition is an example.
Gatto said he did not have in mind any specific language he wanted Congress to adopt. He said the necessity for so many state legislatures to reach agreement during the ratification process would guarantee the most widely acceptable language would be in the amendment.
Loyola Law professor Jessica Levinson said it was doubtful that 34 states would approve a call for Congress to overturn Citizens United. She said history has shown that members of Congress were more likely to short-circuit the constitutional convention process by writing their own amendment for states to ratify.
She said other means of change less drastic than a constitutional amendment were more likely to temper the impact of Citizens United. She said the Federal Election Commission, Securities and Exchange Commission and the IRS could enact regulations to make corporate sources of campaign money more transparent to the public. Congress could pass laws calling for more disclosure of the sources of campaign money.
Also, the public could show that big money campaigns are a turn-off, she said.
"For independent expenditure groups, people will stop spending money when they stop getting a bang for their buck," Levinson said.