Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347; 96 S. Ct. 2673; 49 L. Ed. 2d 547 (1976)

Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347; 96 S. Ct. 2673; 49 L. Ed. 2d 547 (1976)

Facts—Non–civil service employees of the Cook County Sheriff’s Office in Illinois who were Republicans sought an injunction to prevent the newly elected Democrat from firing them. The U.S. Seventh Circuit Court of Appeals overturned the District Court’s denial of the injunction.

Question—Do the First and Fourteenth Amendments limit the dismissal of non–civil service employees on the basis of their political party affiliation?

Decision—Yes, it limits the dismissal of employees who are not in policy- making positions.

ReasonsJ. Brennan (writing for three justices in a 5–4 decision). The case did not present a “political question” unfit for judicial resolution. Although patronage was not new, its “cost” was “the restraint it places on freedom of belief and association,” core values protected by the First Amendment. Public debate should be robust and patronage practices made such debate less likely. First Amendment rights are not absolute, but impairments of such rights are subject to “strict scrutiny,” and must be by the least restrictive means. The state asserts an interest in insuring “effective government and the efficiency of public employees,” but wholesale dismissals are inefficient and should be made on a basis other than that of “mere political association.” Moreover, efficiency can be guarded through the accountability of elected officials to the electorate. The state also asserts the need for loyalty among governmental officials, but such a goal can be achieved by “limiting patronage dismissals to policymaking positions.” The state’s interest in preserving democratic processes is a valid objective but can be achieved through less restrictive alternatives. Brennan concluded that “patronage dismissals severely restrict political belief and association” and upheld the injunction.

J. Stewart concurred, but limited his decision to “whether a non- policymaking, nonconfidential government employee can be discharged or threatened with discharge from a job that he is satisfactorily performing upon the sole ground of his political beliefs.”

C.J. Burger dissented on the basis that this decision represented unwarranted intervention into state affairs.

J. Powell focused in dissent on historical practice. He observed that the individuals who brought suit took their positions knowing they were patronage positions. He further argued that patronage contributed to democracy “by stimulating political activity and by strengthening parties,” especially at state and local levels. He thus concluded that “patronage hiring practices sufficiently serve important state interests, including some interests sought to be advanced by the First Amendment, to justify a tolerable intrusion on the First Amendment interests of employees or potential employees.”

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