Yesterday conservative members of the Supreme Court pointed out that they could not put up with government restrictions on corporate spending in elections with constitutional protections of free speech and may rule broadly to strike what has been a long-standing fixture of campaign-finance law.
A majority of the court seemed impatient with an increasingly complicated federal scheme intended to curb the role of corporations, unions, and special-interest groups in elections.
The laws, former Solicitor General Theodore Olson told the court, instead "smothered" First Amendment rights and "criminalized" free speech.
The question is whether the court is willing to strike two of its precedents and defy Congress on corporate restrictions that date from the beginning of the 20th century, Philadelphia Inquirer reports.
It was also reported, if the justices were to issue such a ruling in the next few months, it could reshape American politics, beginning with the congressional campaign in 2010.
For example, the health insurance industry would have a much greater ability to target for defeat members of Congress who supported a so-called "public option" for medical insurance. Banks and investment firms could oppose representatives who favor stricter financial regulation.
And far more money could flow into elections. Last year, the political parties spent about $1.5 billion on the political campaigns, while corporations earned more than $600 billion in profits.
Until now, corporations and unions have been restricted in their election-related spending.
Since 1907, federal law has prohibited corporations from giving corporate money to candidates. Since 1947, corporations and unions have been barred from spending money to urge voters to elect or defeat federal candidates.
At least 24 states have similar bans on corporate spending in state races.
All those spending limits have come under growing legal attack from conservatives and libertarians who say the government should not be allowed to set limits on campaign spending and electioneering, even with corporate or union money, Chicago Tribune reports.
In the meantime, three justices -- Antonin Scalia, Anthony M. Kennedy and Clarence Thomas -- have already said that they would vote to overrule past decisions that upheld federal and state restrictions on corporate election spending.
Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. and Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. also have said they favor free speech over the campaign funding limits. But they have not yet said whether they would go along and give corporations a free-speech right to spend on campaign ads.
That was the issue before the court Wednesday. It was a rare reargument in the seemingly narrow case of a small nonprofit group called Citizens United.
The organization had produced an anti-Clinton video called "Hillary: The Movie," which was designed to undercut her 2008 campaign for the presidency. However, it got tied up in a legal battle with the Federal Election Commission.
Because Citizens United is incorporated and received a small amount of corporate money, the group and its movie came under FEC regulation. Any amount of corporate money can trigger regulatory action under the election laws.
In March, the justices debated whether the law should apply to a nonprofit group that produced a campaign-related video. But rather than decide that narrow question, the justices said in June that they would focus instead on whether to say that all corporations, like individuals, had a right to spend freely to elect or defeat candidates, the Los Angeles Times reports.