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While the Occupy National Gathering was protesting and marching in the streets of Philadelphia, Continental Congress 2.0 (see www.the99declaration.org) quietly met from July 2nd to July 4th at the Pennsylvania Convention Center just blocks away. This new Continental Congress convened exactly 236 years after the Continental Congress met to adopt the Declaration of Independence in July 1776. About 90 delegates attended after they were elected using an online voting system whereby ballots were emailed to hundreds of thousands of people asking them to select their neighbors to represent them at the three day Congress. The delegates travelled from all over the United States to Philadelphia to draft and ratify a "Petition for Redress of Grievances" which will be served upon the three branches of government before the November general election. About 100 grievances submitted by the American people from October 7, 2011 to June 15, 2012 were debated, voted upon and selected by the delegates for inclusion in a final petition. Many of the grievances deal with the corrupting influence of unlimited money in politics, Congressional ethics, election reform, fiscal responsibility in Washington and real regulation of Wall Street.
The Petition for Redress of Grievances is specifically authorized in the First Amendment to the United States Constitution and intended to go beyond the rights to assemble and speak freely. It was envisioned that the Petition Clause would be utilized if the government stopped listening to the people. In the 18th century, a Petition for Redress of Grievances was viewed as a formal legal document or writ based upon a long line of historic precedents including the Magna Carta , the Petition of Right of 1628, the Bill of Rights of 1689 and the Writ of Habeas Corpus. Familiar with this history, our founders, whatever their faults, knew the need for a mechanism to formally petition the government if it started to ignore the will of the people. The founders themselves attempted to avoid further bloodshed after the battles at Lexington and Concord by sending King George III the so-called Olive Branch Petition listing their grievances and proposing reconciliation in July 1775. Obviously, the King ignored the petition and eight years of war ensued.
In 1789, having borne witness to the terrible price paid during the Revolutionary War, the founders made certain that the Bill of Rights contained a specific provision allowing citizens to petition the government for a redress of grievances. Like the other checks and balances in our Constitution, the petition clause is a power specifically reserved to the people rather than the states or federal government. The Supreme Court discussed the petition clause last year in Borough of Duryea , Pennsylvania, Et . Al., Petitioners v. Charles J. Guarnieri, 131 S.Ct. 2488 (2011):
"This Court's precedents confirm that the Petition Clause protects the right of individuals to appeal to courts and other forums established by the government for resolution of legal disputes. '[T]he right of access to courts for redress of wrongs is an aspect of the First Amendment right to petition the government.' Sure--Tan, Inc. v. NLRB, 467 U.S. 883, 896--897, 104 S.Ct. 2803, 81 L.Ed.2d 732 (1984); see also BE & K Constr . Co. v. NLRB, 536 U.S. 516, 525, 122 S.Ct. 2390, 153 L.Ed.2d 499 (2002); Bill Johnson's Restaurants, Inc. v. NLRB, 461 U.S. 731, 741, 103 S.Ct. 2161, 76 L.Ed.2d 277 (1983); California Motor Transport Co. v. Trucking Unlimited, 404 U.S. 508, 513, 92 S.Ct. 609, 30 L.Ed.2d 642 (1972). . . Both speech and petition are integral to the democratic process, although not necessarily in the same way. The right to petition allows citizens to express their ideas, hopes, and concerns to their government and their elected representatives, whereas the right to speak fosters the public exchange of ideas that is integral to deliberative democracy as well as to the whole realm of ideas and human affairs. Beyond the political sphere, both speech and petition advance personal expression, although the right to petition is generally concerned with expression directed to the government seeking redress of a grievance."
However, more so than protected speech, a "petition conveys the special concerns of its author to the government and, in its usual form, requests action by the government to address those concerns." See Sure--Tan Inc., supra, at 896--897, 104 S.Ct. 2803. The word "redress" means more than simply listening to a person exercise free speech. According to the Oxford English Dictionary, the verb redress means to "remedy or set right (an undesirable or unfair situation)" or "set upright again." While the Supreme Court in Guarnieri left open the question of whether speech contained in a Petition should be afforded greater constitutional protection than the rights to speech and assembly, the plain language of the First Amendment suggests that some action be taken by the government to "remedy or set right" the complaints contained in a Petition for Redress of Grievances.
Thus far in our history, the courts have held that the right to petition the government for a redress of grievances, while absolute, does not compel the government to take affirmative action on the petition, or to adopt the views advocated by the petition. See McDonald v. Smith, 472 U.S. 479, 482, 105 S.Ct. 2787, 86 L.Ed.2d 384 (1985). Today many would agree that our republican democracy is at an unprecedented crossroads confronted with the unlimited expenditure of money in political campaigns without any public disclosure of where the money is coming from or how it is being spent. In this environment, where the lobbyists and politicians operate under this astonishing conflict of interest, it is clear that lawmakers are unable or unwilling to regulate themselves and stop taking this money. The political branches of government, the executive and legislative, have run off the rails and the third branch must intercede and compel these politicians to respond and redress the people's grievances regarding the corrupting influence of money in our government. These hundreds of millions of dollars have rendered traditional free speech meaningless unless the speaker can afford to hire lobbyists and pay the vast sums of money required to obtain action from their representatives by contributing to political campaigns. Put another way, anyone can stand on a corner and give a speech or write a letter to their congressperson but that kind of speech is no longer meaningful unless it has the same amplification as other speakers. Unlimited money has introduced a new high-powered amplifier that drowns out all other "free of charge" speech. Another analogy is in sports; an athlete can win all the medals for himself if he is permitted to take anabolic steroids or other enhancing substances but what happens to the sport and the value of the medals if that happens? They become a sham.
As part of our "checks and balances" system, our conflicted Congress must be required by the Courts to pass new laws that prevent owners of concentrated sources of wealth from dictating policy for the benefit of a select few. In essence, the people's right to petition the government is now being blocked by the practice of lobbyists and wealthy special interests who, with the aid of unlimited money, gerrymandering and new voter suppression techniques, have exclusive access to policy makers in both parties who work exclusively for their financial donors rather than the voters they are supposed to represent. This conflict of interest constitutes a perversion of our constitutional government and an ongoing deprivation of the people's constitutional rights to honest governmental services, preservation of the public trust and protection of the general welfare. It must be remedied now while the solutions to our national and global problems are still attainable.
New York attorney and co-founder of the 99% Working Group whose mission is to fund and organize a new National General Assembly called "Continental Congress 2.0" which is a meeting of 878 elected delegates from all 50 states and the U.S.
Michael Pollok is a New York criminal defense attorney and co-founder of the 99% Working Group. See www.the99declaration.org or www.facebook.com/The99PercentDeclaration for more information about the Working Group and the creation of Continental Congress 2.0. You may also follow the group on Twitter at https://twitter.com/#!/99Declaration.