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Sonia Sotomayor jumps in to question lawyers

/ Source: The Associated Press

Twenty minutes into her first argument as a Supreme Court justice, Sonia Sotomayor wasn't shy about taking on two legal heavyweights in an important case that could open a door to a flood of corporate campaign spending.

First, Sotomayor went head-to-head with Theodore Olson, a prominent conservative who has argued 56 cases before the Supreme Court. Then she tangled with Floyd Abrams, a legal expert on the First Amendment.

In both instances, Sotomayor strongly hinted that she will line up with the court's liberals in supporting campaign finance laws or reining them in as lightly as possible.

One issue in the case is a 19-year-old Supreme Court ruling that bars corporations, and in some cases unions, from dipping into their general funds to call directly for the election or defeat of a candidate in federal and many state elections.

Olson is defending a group whose 90-minute movie attacked Hillary Rodham Clinton during her presidential campaign last year. Federal courts said the movie looked and sounded like a long campaign ad and therefore should be regulated like one.

"Mr. Olson, my difficulty is that you make very impassioned arguments about why this is a bad system that the courts have developed," said Sotomayor. She then made the point that Olson seemed to be abandoning earlier arguments to resolve the case on narrow grounds.

Sotomayor pressed on when it was Abrams' turn to argue on behalf of Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell, an advocate of fewer spending restrictions. She pointed out the long history of Congress and state legislatures regulating money in the political process.

"Wouldn't we be doing some more harm than good by a broad ruling?" asked Sotomayor.

By jumping into the fray on her first day on the bench, Sotomayor was following the path of the second-newest member of the court, Justice Samuel Alito, who plunged in with questions on his first day at the court in February 2006.