WASHINGTON – The Supreme Court signaled Monday that it could overturn decades-old laws on how money is spent on federal elections, raising the stakes in a case about a scathing documentary about Hillary Rodham Clinton.
The high court was expected to release a decision on the Citizens United movie as part of its end-of-the-term wrap up, but in an unusual move the justices said they will hear arguments in the case again in a special session Sept. 9.
In advance of the rare session, the court told the lawyers in the case to focus their arguments on whether its earlier decisions banning certain political speech by corporations, and the corporate and union spending on television advertising during campaigns, should be overturned.
Advocates on both sides said the decision on this case will likely shape federal elections for years to come.
"At stake in the Citizens United case now is whether the Supreme Court is going to take the radical step of striking down the 60-year old ban on corporate expenditures and open the flood gates to immense amounts of corporate wealth being used to directly influence federal campaigns," said Fred Wertheimer, president of the Democracy 21 group.
This is now "a blockbuster case about Americans' First Amendment rights to join together and speak freely about politics," said Steve Simpson, a lawyer with the Institute for Justice. "A majority of the high court appears to recognize the grave threat to free speech posed by both the electioneering communications ban in McCain-Feingold and the ban on corporate political speech. This case could mark a significant advance for First Amendment rights and will have major implications for state laws nationwide."
Justice Anthony Kennedy had warned during oral arguments that the nation's campaign finance laws could be at stake in this case. Government lawyers argued that the documentary was the same thing as a long campaign ad.
"If we think that the application of this to a 90-minute film is unconstitutional, then the whole statute should fall," Kennedy said on March 24.
The case involves Citizens United, a conservative not-for-profit group that wanted to air ads for the movie in Democratic primary states and also make the film available to cable subscribers on demand without complying with federal campaign finance law.
But lower courts have said the movie looked and sounded like a long campaign ad, and therefore should be regulated like one.
At the time of "Hillary: The Movie," the New York senator was competing with Barack Obama for the Democratic presidential nomination. She is now secretary of state in the Obama administration.
The movie is unquestionably anti-Clinton, featuring commentary from conservative pundits, some of whom specifically say she was not fit to be commander in chief. One scene, which was used in an ad, shows Dick Morris describing the senator as "the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist."
Morris, who once served as an adviser to former President Bill Clinton, is now one of the Clintons' harshest critics.
Citizens United wanted to pay for its documentary to be shown on home video-on-demand, and for ads promoting the movie to be shown in competitive Democratic primary states.
Federal judges, however, said the movie should be regulated by the McCain-Feingold law, the popular name for 2002 revisions to the nation's campaign finance law. Judges called "Hillary: The Movie" a 90-minute attack ad, rulings that would require Citizens United to identify the financial backers for the ads if they were to appear on television.
The court also said that if the group showed the movie on cable television, financial backers would have to be named and the group would have to pay the cost of airing the movie.
The movie was advertised on the Internet, sold on DVD and shown in a few theaters. Campaign regulations do not apply to DVDs, theaters or the Internet.
The court's composition will be different by the time it rehears the case. Justice David Souter plans to retire this month, and Obama has nominated Sonia Sotomayor, a judge from the 2nd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals in New York, to replace him.
Obama and Democrats hope the Senate confirms Sotomayor before the high court session in September. If confirmed, this would be the first case the court would hear with Sotomayor on the bench.