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Portland Council to Weigh in on 'Corporate Personhood'
01/18/2012   Reported By: Josie Huang

Two years ago this month, the U.S. Supreme Court voted to allow corporations to spend freely in elections -- either supporting or attacking candidates. What's known as the Citizens United decision set a legal precedent that has had an impact on election laws throughout the country, including Maine's. But it's also created a backlash, with cities across the country passing resolutions opposing the Supreme Court decision. Tonight, the Portland City Council will vote on a similar measure which calls on Congress to back a constitutional amendment to limit corporate spending in elections.

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Portland Council to Weigh in on "Corporate Personh
Originally Aired: 1/19/2012 5:30 PM
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 Duration:
3:45

"If we continue to allow corporations to spend unlimitedly to influence elections, then that will drastically alter our future," says Portland City Councilor David Marshall, who was urged by groups such as the League of Young Voters and Occupy protesters to sponsor the resolution.

Marshall rejects the notion that corporations have First Amendment free speech rights like actual people.

He says so-called "corporate personhood" limits his free speech rights as an individual, "because I don't live forever like corporations can, and I can't as an individual exist in several nations at a time in order to accumulate wealth," Marshall says. "So my ability to influence an election is much less than the ability of a corporation to influence an election."

The measure needs five out of nine votes for Portland to join New York, Los Angeles, Oakland, Calif. and other cities that have passed resolutions.

But the vote could be tight. Marshall is sure he has four votes, including that of the mayor's. Several other councilors are question marks, while Councilor Cheryl Leeman says she will definitely be voting against it.

"I'm not elected to Congress. I'm elected to the City Council to deal with city issues," Leeman says.

Leeman says she herself does not have a position on corporate personhood. But to her, that's beside the point. She just doesn't see how the Supreme Court decision is relevant to the city. "I see where there's absolutely no direct impact on city services or the residents of Portland. It is a political issue and there is an appropriate forum to have those discussions but not on a city council agenda."

Others disagree. Michael Franz, political scientist at Bowdoin College, says people in Portland and Maine will feel the direct impact of the Citizens United decision this year. Franz says the decision allowed for the creation of so-called Super-PACs that don't have to disclose their donors, and that will be dominating the election season.

"This case has allowed groups to form and air ads on television to make their appeals to voters," Franz says. "Voters are going to see a lot of ads this time around and they're going to see a lot of ads from groups they've never heard of and they won't be able to find anything out about."

Franz says that arguments in favor of the Citizens United decision are showing up in other cases. Another Supreme Court decision last June jeopardized the use of matching funds under Maine's clean elections law.

Justices argued that Arizona's clean election law, which is modeled after Maine's, was unconstitutional because giving public money to candidates who were being outspent was being unfair to the privately-financed. Maine is now working on conforming its state law to the high court's ruling.

"If people have more money they have more money, and that's just the way it is, and that was the argument that the court made," Franz says.

Franz doubts whether the Citizens United decision could be overturned by the current composition of the Supreme Court. He also says constitutional amendments are incredibly hard to pass in Congress.

Congressman Mike Michaud says he would like to reverse the Citizens United decision. But given that the Democrats are in the minority party, he's pessimistic about that happening. "Right now, when you look at the current make-up of Congress, you will not get a constitutional amendment passed of that nature," he says.

Leeman, who also works for Republican Sen. Olympia Snowe, says that Maine's senior senator is taking up more pressing issues than the Citizens United decision, such as finding heating assistance for Mainers.

The Portland City Council's vote on a resolution urging congressional members to reverse the Supreme Court decision will take place this evening at 7:00 p.m. at City Hall.

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