445 U.S. 507 (1980), 78-1654, Branti v. Finkel

Docket Nº:No. 78-1654
Citation:445 U.S. 507, 100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574
Party Name:Branti v. Finkel
Case Date:March 31, 1980
Court:United States Supreme Court

Page 507

445 U.S. 507 (1980)

100 S.Ct. 1287, 63 L.Ed.2d 574




No. 78-1654

United States Supreme Court

March 31, 1980

Argued December 4, 1979




Respondents, both Republicans, brought suit in Federal District Court to enjoin petitioner, a Democrat, who had recently been appointed Public Defender of Rockland County, N.Y. by the Democrat-dominated county legislature, from discharging respondents from their positions as Assistant Public Defenders. Finding that respondents had been satisfactorily performing their jobs and had been selected for termination solely because they were Republicans, and that an assistant public defender is neither a policymaker nor a confidential employee, the District Court held that petitioner could not terminate respondents' employment consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and granted injunctive relief. The Court of Appeals affirmed.

Held: The First and Fourteenth Amendments protect respondents from discharge solely because of their political beliefs. Pp. 513-520.

(a) To prevail in this type of action, there is no requirement that dismissed government employees prove that they, or other employees, have been coerced into changing, either actually or ostensibly, their political allegiance. Rather, it was sufficient for respondents here to prove that they were about to be discharged "solely for the reason that they were not affiliated with or sponsored by the Democratic Party." Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 350. Pp. 513-517.

(b) The issue is not whether the label "policymaker" or "confidential" fits the particular public office in question, but rather whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the office. Here, it is manifest that the continued employment of an assistant public defender cannot properly be conditioned upon his allegiance to the political party in control of the county government. The primary, if not the only, responsibility of an assistant public defender is to represent individual citizens in controversy with the State. Whatever policymaking occurs in his office must relate to individual clients' needs, and not to any partisan political interests. Similarly, although an assistant is bound to obtain access to confidential information arising out of various attorney-client relationships, that information has no bearing on partisan political concerns. Under these circumstances,

Page 508

it would undermine, rather than promote, the effective performance of an assistant public defender's office to make his tenure dependent on his allegiance to the dominant political party. Pp. 517-520.

598 F.2d 609, affirmed.

STEVENS, J., delivered the opinion for the Court, in which BURGER, C.J., and BRENNAN, WHITE, MARSHALL, and BLACKMUN, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 520. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which REHNQUIST, J., joined and in Part I of which STEWART, J., joined, post, p. 521.

STEVENS, J., lead opinion

MR. JUSTICE STEVENS delivered the opinion of the Court.

The question presented is whether the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution protect an assistant public defender who is satisfactorily performing his job from discharge solely because of his political beliefs.

Respondents, Aaron Finkel and Alan Tabakman, commenced this action in the United States District Court for the Southern District of New York in order to preserve their positions as assistant public defenders in Rockland County, New York.1 On January 4, 1978, on the basis of a showing that the petitioner public defender was about to discharge them solely because they were Republicans, the District Court entered a [100 S.Ct. 1290] temporary restraining order preserving the status quo. After hearing evidence for eight days, the District Court entered detailed findings of fact and permanently enjoined2 petitioner from terminating or attempting to terminate respondents' employment "upon the sole grounds of

Page 509

their political beliefs."3 457 F.Supp. 1284, 1285 (1978). The Court of Appeals affirmed in an unpublished memorandum opinion, judgment order reported at 598 F. d 609 (CA2 1979) (table).

The critical facts can be summarized briefly. The Rockland County Public Defender is appointed by the County Legislature for a term of six years. He in turn appoints nine assistants who serve at his pleasure. The two respondents have served as assistants since their respective appointments in March, 1971, and September, 1975; they are both Republicans.4

Petitioner Branti's predecessor, a Republican, was appointed in 1972 by a Republican-dominated County Legislature. By 1977, control of the legislature had shifted to the Democrats and petitioner, also a Democrat, was appointed to replace the incumbent when his term expired. As soon as petitioner was formally appointed on January 3, 1978, he began executing termination notices for six of the nine assistants then in office. Respondents were among those who were to be terminated. With one possible exception, the nine who were to be appointed

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or retained were all Democrats, and were all selected by Democratic legislators or Democratic town chairmen on a basis that had been determined by the Democratic caucus.5

The District Court found that Finkel and Tabakman had been selected for termination solely because they were Republicans, and thus did not have the necessary Democratic sponsors:

The sole grounds for the attempted removal of plaintiffs were the facts that plaintiffs' political beliefs differed from those of the ruling Democratic majority in the County Legislature, and that the Democratic majority had determined that Assistant Public Defender appointments were to be made on political bases.

457 F.Supp. at 1293. The court rejected petitioner's belated attempt to justify the dismissals on nonpolitical grounds. Noting that both Branti and his predecessor had described respondents as "competent attorneys," the District [100 S.Ct. 1291] Court expressly found that both had been "satisfactorily performing their duties as Assistant Public Defenders." Id. at 1292.

Having concluded that respondents had been discharged solely because of their political beliefs, the District Court held that those discharges would be permissible under this Court's decision in Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, only if

Page 511

assistant public defenders are the type of policymaking, confidential employees who may be discharged solely on the basis of their political affiliations. The court concluded that respondents clearly did not fall within that category. Although recognizing that they had broad responsibilities with respect to particular cases that were assigned to them, the court found that respondents had "very limited, if any, responsibility" with respect to the overall operation of the public defender's office. They did not "act as advisors or formulate plans for the implementation of the broad goals of the office" and, although they made decisions in the context of specific cases, "they do not make decisions about the orientation and operation of the office in which they work." 457 F.Supp. at 1291.

The District Court also rejected the argument that the confidential character of respondents' work justified conditioning their employment on political grounds. The court found that they did not occupy any confidential relationship to the policymaking process, and did not have access to confidential documents that influenced policymaking deliberations. Rather, the only confidential information to which they had access was the product of their attorney-client relationship with the office's clients; to the extent that such information was shared with the public defender, it did not relate to the formulation of office policy.

In light of these factual findings, the District Court concluded that petitioner could not terminate respondents' employment as assistant public defenders consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On appeal, a panel of the Second Circuit affirmed, specifically holding that the District Court's findings of fact were adequately supported by the record. That court also expressed "no doubt" that the District Court "was correct in concluding that an assistant public defender was neither a policymaker nor a confidential employee." We granted certiorari, 443 U.S. 904, and now affirm.

Page 512

Petitioner advances two principal arguments for reversal:6 first, that the holding in Elrod v. Burns is limited to situations in which government employees are [100 S.Ct. 1292] coerced into pledging allegiance to a political party that they would not voluntarily support, and does not apply to a simple requirement that an employee be sponsored by the party in power; and, second, that, even if party sponsorship is an unconstitutional condition of continued public employment for clerks, deputies, and janitors, it is an acceptable requirement for an assistant public defender.

Page 513


In Elrod v. Burns the Court held that the newly elected Democratic Sheriff of Cook County, Ill., had violated the constitutional rights of certain non-civil-service employees by discharging them

because they did not support and were not members of the Democratic Party and had failed to obtain the sponsorship of one of its leaders.

427 U.S. at 351. That holding was supported by two separate opinions.

Writing for the plurality, MR. JUSTICE BRENNAN identified two separate but interrelated reasons supporting the conclusion that the discharges were prohibited by the First and Fourteenth Amendments. First,...

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