The Supreme Court, in an imminent ruling, may clear away long-standing campaign finance restrictions in a way that could allow union and corporate money to flood congressional races before the 2010 mid-term elections.
The case began as a dispute over a film criticizing Hillary Clinton when she was a presidential candidate, but has evolved to address broad campaign finance issues.
In the original dispute, the group Citizens United wanted to air the Clinton film in January 2008, the same month as major Democratic presidential primaries. The group wanted to air ads for it and distribute it through on-demand cable services. But the Federal Election Commission said the partisan film amounted to a campaign ad and should be regulated like one. The lowers courts agreed, and the case made its way to the high court.
The Supreme Court could issue a narrow ruling as early as Wednesday pertaining to whether restrictions on corporate and union political ads apply to such video-on-demand movies.
But some observers are bracing for a much more sweeping decision.
Bob Edgar, president of the group Common Cause, said he's expecting the court to make a ground-shaking ruling, reversing not only elements of the 2002 McCain-Feingold campaign finance law but other restrictions dating back 20 years. And he said such a decision would only encourage more suits challenging campaign finance law.
"Money has already corroded the discussion before Congress," he said. "It'll open Pandora's Box."
One possibility, he said, is the court will scale back part of the 2002 restrictions, which prohibit union- and corporate-funded campaign ads in the window shortly before an election. But Edgar said the decision could reach all the way back to a 1990 precedent which upheld restrictions prohibiting corporations from using treasury money to advocate for or against candidates.
When the dust settles, he said, corporations could be using general funds -- potentially contrary to their shareholders' interests -- to fund everything from ads to movies to books before an election.
"It's just one other way in which special interests can taint the outcome," he said.
On the other side of the debate, advocates for change say crucial First Amendment rights are at stake.
Theodore Olson, the attorney representing Citizens United, has argued that the government has "prohibited speech."
The chamber argues that current spending and disclosure rules threaten "the First Amendment rights of willing listeners." The group argues that requiring the disclosure of donors for political ads inhibits companies from contributing.
That was one of the issues in the Citizens United case. The FEC wanted to force the group to reveal its donors, but Citizens United did not want to comply.
Another possible outcome of the Supreme Court ruling is that the justices could whittle away disclosure requirements.
The Associated Press contributed to this report.