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WASHINGTON - President Barack Obama's top courtroom lawyer strongly defended the nation's campaign funding laws before the Supreme Court on Wednesday and warned the court's skeptical conservatives against striking down the historic ban on corporations' direct support of candidates for Congress and the presidency.

Big companies "will invest in incumbents" who do their bidding if the court throws out the rules against corporate funding of candidates, Solicitor General Elena Kagan said.

The stakes looked to be high Wednesday when the newly constituted court met to hear a special argument on whether corporations should have the same free-speech rights as individuals.

The showdown over the campaign funding laws could mark a turning point for Chief Justice John G. Roberts Jr. Until now, Roberts has regularly joined with fellow conservatives, including Justices Antonin Scalia and Clarence Thomas, but he has avoided broad rulings that overturn precedents and reshape the law. Now Roberts must decide whether to make a major change in the campaign funding laws that would surely be denounced by critics as conservative activism.

Roberts asked a series of skeptical questions of Kagan. But he left open the possibility he could opt for a narrow ruling in the pending case, Citizens United vs. Federal Election Commission.

It was the first argument for Kagan, as well as for new Justice Sonia Sotomayor. Just minutes into the argument, she pressed Washington lawyer Ted Olson, a former Reagan administration lawyer and solicitor general for President George W. Bush, to explain why he was seeking a broad ruling in a seemingly narrow case involving a conservative group's video called Hillary: The Movie, which attacked Hillary Rodham Clinton.

If the court hands down a broad ruling, it could reshape campaigns and American politics, and the legal battle had a decidedly partisan cast. Seth Waxman, a former Clinton administration lawyer, joined Kagan in defending the restrictions on corporations. It would be "truly extraordinary" for the justices to reject 100 years of election law, Waxman said.

Waxman was speaking for Sens. John McCain, R-Ariz., and Russell D. Feingold, D-Wis., the co-sponsors of the 2002 law that, among other things, prohibited corporate- and union-funded campaign ads in the months before an election. Both senators were in court during the 90-minute argument.

The court will meet behind closed doors later this week to vote on the case. A decision could come within a few months.