On Wednesday, the Supreme Court cut its summer vacation short to do something it almost never does: Hear a re-argument for a case it has already ruled on, leaving open the possibility of nine solemn justices rewriting campaign-finance laws from across the last century—and shaking America’s understanding of free speech.
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At issue is Hillary: The Movie, a scathing documentary released during the 2008 presidential campaign. The relentlessly negative film, featuring commentary from Ann Coulter, was thought to be so strident that the McCain-Feingold campaign-finance law’s prohibition of corporate-financed “electioneering communications” pushed the ads and movie off the air.
Liberal groups found themselves suddenly divided. The New York Times reported late last month that the American Civil Liberties Union narrowly decided to support Citizens United, the company that financed Hillary. The case caused “a huge fight” within the group, which found itself torn between promoting free speech and not letting deep-pockets seize hold of the democratic process. The stakes are high: In March, arguments for Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission drew gasps when a government lawyer said it was theoretically possible to prohibit the distribution of politically charged books during an election, according to the Times’ front-page account of the battle.
The court’s willingness to take a re-argument suggests it could be gearing up to make some definitive statements about the murky field of corporate speech and campaign finance. And Citizens United is the first case newbie justice Sonia Sotomayor hears on the Supreme Court bench.