WASHINGTON - The Supreme Court returns on Wednesday to consider ending long-standing limits on corporate and union spending in political campaigns -- a move critics say could give big money more influence over U.S. elections.
Proponents say the case, which involves a movie critical of then-presidential candidate Hillary Clinton, represents a basic issue of free speech.
But a decision by the nation's highest court in the case could reshape the rules on how money can be spent in presidential and congressional elections, which already break new spending records with each political cycle.
Some analysts see this as one of the areas where a more conservative court -- with two members appointed by former Republican President George W. Bush -- may make a dramatic change in the law.
The justices first heard arguments in March but decided in June to hold another session to consider the more important issue of whether to overturn two of its past rulings that limit direct corporate and union financing of campaigns.
Supporters of the restrictions said the court could unleash a flood of corporate money into the U.S. political system to promote or defeat candidates.
"Overturning these well-established laws would turn our elections into free-for-alls, with massive corporate and union spending," said David Arkush of Public Citizen, a consumer advocacy group based in Washington.
"Corporate influence would likely be strengthened over all policy decisions -- on healthcare reform, climate change, trade, everything," said Arkush, director of the group's Congress Watch division.
SPENDING ON 2008 CAMPAIGNS
In the 2008 election cycle, nearly $6 billion was spent on all federal campaigns, including more than $1 billion from corporate political action committees, trade associations, executives and lobbyists.
The case stemmed from a conservative advocacy group's challenge to the federal campaign finance law as part of its effort to broadcast and promote a movie critical of Clinton during her presidential campaign.
The group, Citizens United, released a 90-minute documentary film "Hillary: The Movie" in January 2008 when Clinton, then a U.S. senator from New York, was running for president. She later became President Barack Obama's secretary of state.
The justices cut short their normal summer vacations to hear the 80 minutes of scheduled arguments in the case about a month before the formal opening of their new term. It will be the first case heard by new Justice Sonia Sotomayor.
The 2002 campaign finance law at issue in the case was named after Senator John McCain, the unsuccessful Republican presidential nominee in 2008, and Democratic Senator Russell Feingold.
The court's conservative majority, with the addition of Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, both Bush appointees, already has voted to limit or strike down parts of the law designed to regulate the role of money in politics and prevent corruption.
The court will consider whether to overrule the part of its 2003 ruling that upheld a provision that restricts broadcast ads by companies and unions right before elections.
It also will consider throwing out the part of the 2003 ruling and its 1990 decision that upheld federal and state limits on corporate spending.
Solicitor General Elena Kagan, who was considered by Obama for the Supreme Court vacancy that ultimately went to Sotomayor, will be making her first argument before the court in defending the limits.
Theodore Olson, a prominent conservative lawyer, will argue the limits violate free-speech rights.
A ruling is expected late this year or early next year.
(Editing by Mohammad Zargham)