What Are Super PACs?

Case Law, Current Events, Exploring HeinOnline, Searching, U.S. Congressional Documents
Shannon Furtak

For those following this year's election, the phrase "super PAC" is probably familiar, but even if you're trying to tune out the 2016 presidential race entirely, you might be interested to learn how super PACs can affect an election.

PAC stands for political action committee, and super PACs are allowed to raise unlimited sums of money from corporations, unions, and individuals and then spend that money to openly advocate for or against a political candidate. Unlike traditional PACs, however, super PACs are prohibited from donating money directly to political candidates, and their spending must not be coordinated with that of the candidates they benefit, according to opensecrets.org. Both traditional and super PACs advocate for or against a candidate by purchasing television, radio, and print advertisements.

Super PACs were born in 2010 after two federal court decisions, available in HeinOnline and via Fastcase, found limitations on corporate and individual contributions to violate the First Amendment.

1. Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission (Decided January 21, 2010): The Supreme Court overruled Austin v. Michigan Chamber of Commerce and parts of McConnell v. FEC, which had both held that political speech may be banned based on the speaker's corporate identity. In a 5 to 4 vote, the majority held that, under the First Amendment, corporate funding of independent political broadcasts cannot be limited.

2. Speechnow.org v. Federal Election Commission (Decided March 26, 2010): SpeechNow.org sued the FEC in February of 2008, claiming the $5,000 federal limit on how much individuals can give to a political committee represented a violation of the First Amendment guarantee to free speech, stating that "since the First Amendment guarantees individuals the right to speak without limit, it should be common sense that groups of individuals have the same rights. It turns out that these limits and red tape made it virtually impossible for new independent citizen groups to raise start-up funding and effectively reach voters." The court ruled in favor of Speechnow.org, stating that the government's argument that allowing contributions in excess of $5,000 from individuals could ultimately lead to corruption became meritless after the Citizens United case was decided.

Citizens successfully challenged the political spending limit on corporations, and Speechnow.org removed the cap on political fundraising, paving the way for the development of super PACS. 

Research super PACs in HeinOnline by searching "super political action committee"~10 OR "Super PAC":

The example search string will find the four words super, political, action and committee within 10 words of one another, or the exact phrase "super PAC." Sort results by number of times accessed to see what other HeinOnline users are clicking on most frequently. Use the tools on the right side of each result to print, download, email, or save search results to your MyHein account.

Find on-point articles using the Advanced Search link in the Law Journal Library, and searching the article title field for "super PAC":

Research congressional hearings about either case by searching the U.S. Congressional Documents collection for the case name. For example, "Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission" will produce nearly 80 results, including 13 hearings:

Interestingly, the super PACs with the highest expenditures for the 2016 cycle support candidates who are no longer contenders for the presidency, according to this chart available from opensecrets.org. Two of the candidates still in the race, Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders, are not supported by any dedicated super PAC.

We will continue to follow the 2016 presidential election and the various issues associated with the race to the White House. For help searching these or any topics in HeinOnline, contact our dedicated support team at (800) 277-6995, email us, or chat with us!