'Hillary: The Movie' Gets New Airing at High Court

"Hillary: The Movie" is returning to the Supreme Court for a limited engagement and with the chance to overhaul laws governing federal campaigns ranging from the White House to the halls of Congress.

The justices were hearing arguments in the case Wednesday for the second time. It began as a dispute over whether a 90-minute movie attacking Hillary Rodham Clinton's presidential ambitions should be regulated as a campaign ad.

Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)
J. Scott Applewhite
Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton (AP Photo/J. Scott Applewhite)

But it took on greater significance after the justices decided to use the case to consider whether to ease restrictions, established in two earlier decisions now at issue, on how corporations and labor unions may spend money to influence elections.

The public argument session will be the first for Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who was welcomed to the court Tuesday in a ceremony that was attended by President Barack Obama and Vice President Joe Biden.

The court will release an audio recording of the arguments soon after they conclude and the C-SPAN cable network has said it will air the material.

Like most campaign finance lawsuits, this case pits the court's conservatives, generally skeptical of campaign finance limits, against its liberals. Sotomayor is not expected to play a pivotal role in the case.

Instead, the focus will be on the willingness of two conservatives, Chief Justice John Roberts and Justice Samuel Alito, to overrule earlier decisions. Both justices spoke at length in their Senate confirmation hearings about the importance of abiding by precedents even if they would have voted the other way.

The other three conservative-leaning justices, Anthony Kennedy, Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, are on record opposing the restrictions on corporations and unions.

The details of the anti-Clinton movie have faded in prominence now that the court is looking more broadly at campaign finance law.

A conservative not-for-profit group, Citizens United, wanted to air ads for the anti-Clinton movie and distribute it through video-on-demand services on local cable systems during the 2008 Democratic primary campaign.

But federal courts said the movie looked and sounded like a long campaign ad, and therefore should be regulated like one.

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 film is filled with criticisms of the former first lady, whom Obama defeated in the primaries and then made his secretary of state. It includes Dick Morris, a former adviser to President Bill Clinton who is now a Clinton critic, saying the one-time candidate is "the closest thing we have in America to a European socialist."

It's "not a musical comedy," Justice Stephen Breyer said after watching the movie.

But the lawyer for Citizens United, Theodore Olson, said federal law is wrongly preventing corporations and unions from airing their views, no matter how strongly held.

"Why is it easier to dance naked, burn a flag or wear a T-shirt profanely opposing the draft," Olson said in July at an event sponsored by the conservative Federalist Society, "than it is to advocate the election or defeat of a president? That cannot be right."

In 2003, Olson was President George W. Bush's top Supreme Court lawyer and he defended the campaign finance provision he now is challenging.

The current solicitor general, Elena Kagan, is making her first argument at the high court in support of the laws under attack. Kagan was a finalist for the seat that went to Sotomayor.

Also involved in the case is Sen. John McCain, R-Ariz., whom Obama defeated in November. McCain, Sen. Russ Feingold, D-Wis., and other members of Congress are siding with Obama in asking that the restrictions be kept in place.