STEVE INSKEEP, host:
The coming year is a time when President Obama homes, again, to win passage of new laws on health care and climate change. But if it's like many years, some of the biggest changes ahead may come from the federal courts. One thing will not change. NPR legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg will be covering whatever happens.
NINA TOTENBERG: Hi, Steve.
INSKEEP: I suppose we should remember that even though President Obama's been in office for a year and has even gotten to appoint one Supreme Court justice, the Supreme Court is something that changes very, very slowly.
TOTENBERG: Indeed. Although we've had three new justices appointed in four years, but two of those new justices are very conservative justices, far more conservative than the people that they replaced. And so the court is not likely to change ideologically unless some conservative member of the court retires. And we don't see that anywhere in our future.
INSKEEP: So it's still a very conservative court. One that might be seen as more in line with the thinking of President Bush or President Reagan than say President Obama necessarily?
INSKEEP: And this is the court that's going to consider a number of big cases, including one having to do with the way that political campaigns are financed. What's at stake here?
TOTENBERG: Well, the court has already heard this case argued, and we're waiting for a decision. And what's at stake is the way we finance campaigns and have for 100 years. Because for 100 years it has been the understanding of courts and legislatures that corporations cannot spend money on candidate elections. Individuals can spend money, but corporations can't use their money in the kitty on elections for candidates.
INSKEEP: A corporation that has billions of dollars in revenue cannot say, oh, it's worth $50 million to us to defeat a senator and just do that. they have to - their employees may contribute millions, but they cannot.
TOTENBERG: They cannot spend that kind of money on a campaign to defeat somebody. That's right.
INSKEEP: And what's the argument for doing away with that prohibition?
TOTENBERG: That corporations have First Amendment rights like everybody else and ought to be able to spend their money as they wish. And it does look very much as if there may be five justices ready to sign on to the proposition, which as I say would just abolish the way we've run elections in this country for a century.
INSKEEP: So if they were to allow corporations to get involved in political campaigns that might take effect immediately. It could effect the 2010 election for Congress?
INSKEEP: And the presidential race that would come after that.
INSKEEP: So that's huge. What else is on the radar for the Supreme Court?
TOTENBERG: Well, after the Enron fiasco, Congress almost unanimously passed a law to monitor and regulate accountants so that investors would know what the real financial status of a company was.
INSKEEP: Oh, this is the one that was known as Sarbanes...
INSKEEP: ...Sarbanes-Oxley. Yeah.
TOTENBERG: And it's being challenged. Its constitutionality is being challenged. And at oral argument it looked very much as if there might be five justices to strike that down.
And then just days later the court heard a case testing the key anticorruption law that's used against corporate officials and elected public officials. It's called the Honest Services Law. And it didn't look to me as if there was any member of the court who thought that law was constitutional. So that could go, too.
INSKEEP: And these are all judgments that - and I don't want to generalize here - but judgments that a lot of people who consider themselves conservative would be quite happy with, and a lot of people who consider themselves liberal might be dismayed about.
TOTENBERG: Well, at least the ones involving Sarbanes-Oxley and the campaign finance, the conservatives would be thrilled over and the liberals probably would not. They sort of come together more on the Honest Services thing. But the affect on sort of the role of money in politics, in our national life and the ability to control that money, you can see that the door would suddenly be wide open.
INSKEEP: Our legal affairs correspondent Nina Totenberg.
Nina, thanks very much.
TOTENBERG: You're welcome.
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