What is the difference in 1) background and 2) implications of the supreme Court cases Buckley v. Valeo and Citizens United v. FEC? The sources I've read make them sound pretty similar, but obviously there must be a difference if they are two separate cases 30 years apart. Where do Super-PACs fit in with these cases?


The sources I've read make them sound pretty similar, but obviously there must be a difference if they are two separate cases 30 years apart.

That doesn't necessarily follow. Two cases could decide the same issue with the same result and be an arbitrary number of years apart. That shouldn't happen, as the lower courts should follow the precedent of the first case in the second case, but it could happen. Not the case here though.

Buckley v. Valeo

In Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court held:

  • That candidate expenditures could not be limited, but contributions to candidate campaigns could be.

  • That expenditures by outside groups could not be limited, but they could be required to disclose or report spending or contributions. This is the relevant precedent for Citizens United.

  • That the FEC appointments could not be made in the way that they currently were without a constitutional amendment. The constitution holds that appointments are made by the President and confirmed by the Senate. There is no provision for the Senate nor House to make appointments. The law at the time had the House, Senate, and President each making two appointments.

Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce

After Buckley v. Valeo, the Supreme Court decided Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce, which held:

  • That corporations could be subjected to additional limits compared to individuals or partnerships. I.e. Buckley did not apply to them.

Note that this did not apply to a specific kind of organization called a Political Action Comittee or PAC which was designed only for political speech. A PAC could be operated by a corporation, but its donations to political campaigns had to come from donations from individuals.

Citizens United v. FEC

In Citizens United v. FEC the Supreme Court:

  • Overturned Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce.

The net result of this was to make Buckley the controlling precedent again. This is probably why the two seem to do the same thing.

Super PACs

Citizens United was a particular kind of non-profit corporation, a 501(c)3 (some sources say that it was a 501(c)4 instead). A reporter noted that under the new rules, this made a new sort of political organization that acted like a "Super PAC" in its ability to spend large sums on candidate advocacy. The term "Super PAC" has no legal basis, unlike the term PAC which was established in legislation.

Note that a "Super PAC" is not a PAC. A PAC can donate directly to candidates' campaigns. A "Super PAC" cannot. It can only advocate positions (which it could do prior to Citizens United) and engage in electioneering activities like endorsing a candidate in advertisements (which it could not do prior to Citizens United). In theory, a "Super PAC" cannot interact directly with any campaign organization. In practice, they are often established by former advisers to a candidate and they interact with the campaign through public statements. The limits of this have not been tested. No one has been prosecuted for illegal campaign coordination yet.

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