497 U.S. 62 (1990), Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois

Citation:497 U.S. 62, 110 S.Ct. 2729, 111 L.Ed.2d 52, 58 U.S.L.W. 4872
Party Name:Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois
Case Date:June 21, 1990
Court:United States Supreme Court

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497 U.S. 62 (1990)

110 S.Ct. 2729, 111 L.Ed.2d 52, 58 U.S.L.W. 4872



Republican Party of Illinois

United States Supreme Court

June 21, 1990




The Illinois Governor issued an executive order instituting a hiring freeze, whereby state officials are prohibited from hiring any employee, filling any vacancy, creating any new position, or taking any similar action without the Governor's "express permission." Petitioners and cross-respondents -- an applicant for employment, employees who had been denied promotions or transfers, and former employees who had not been recalled after layoffs -- brought suit in the District Court, alleging that, by means of the freeze, the Governor was operating a political patronage system; that they had suffered discrimination in state employment because they had not been Republican Party supporters; and that this discrimination violates the First Amendment. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. Noting that Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, and Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, had found that the patronage practice of discharging public employees on the basis of their political affiliation violates the First Amendment, the court held that other patronage practices violate the Amendment only when they are the "substantial equivalent of a dismissal," i.e., when they would lead reasonable persons to resign. The court concluded, based on Wygant v. Jackson Bd. of Education, 476 U.S. 267, that rejecting an employment application did not impose a hardship comparable to the loss of a job. Thus, it dismissed the hiring claim, but remanded the others for further proceedings.

Held: The rule of Elrod and Branti extends to promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions based on party affiliation and support, and petitioners and cross-respondents have stated claims upon which relief may be granted. Pp. 68-79.

(a) Promotions, transfers, and recalls based on political affiliation or support are an impermissible infringement on public employees' First Amendment rights. Even though petitioners and cross-respondents

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have no legal entitlement to the promotions, transfers, and recalls, the government [110 S.Ct. 2731] may not rely on a basis that infringes their constitutionally protected interests to deny them these valuable benefits. Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 597. Significant penalties are imposed on those employees who exercise their First Amendment rights. Those who do not compromise their beliefs stand to lose the considerable increases in pay and job satisfaction attendant to promotions, the shorter commuting hours and lower maintenance expenses incident to transfers to more convenient work locations, and even the jobs themselves in the case of recalls. As in Elrod and Branti, these patronage practices are not narrowly tailored to serve vital government interests. A government's interest in securing effective employees can be met by discharging, demoting, or transferring persons whose work is deficient, and its interest in securing employees who will loyally implement its policies can be adequately served by choosing or dismissing high-level employees on the basis of their political views. Likewise, the "preservation of the democratic process" is not furthered by these patronage decisions, since political parties are nurtured by other less intrusive and equally effective methods, and since patronage decidedly impairs the elective process by discouraging public employees' free political expression. Pp. 71-75.

(b) The standard used by the Court of Appeals to measure alleged patronage practices in government employment is unduly restrictive because it fails to recognize that there are deprivations less harsh than dismissal that nevertheless press state employees and applicants to conform their beliefs and associations to some state-selected orthdoxy. Pp. 75-76.

(c) Patronage hiring places burdens on free speech and association similar to those imposed by patronage promotions, transfers, and recalls. Denial of a state job is a serious privation, since such jobs provide financial, health, and other benefits; since there may be openings with the State when business in the private sector is slow; and since there are occupations for which the government is the sole or major employer. Under this Court's sustained precedent, conditioning hiring decisions on political belief and association plainly constitutes an unconstitutional condition unless the government has a vital interest in doing so. See, e.g., Branti, supra, 445 U.S. at 515-516. There is no such government interest here, for the same reasons that the government lacks justification for patronage promotions, transfers, and recalls. It is inappropriate to rely on Wygant to distinguish hiring from dismissal in this context, since that case was concerned with the least harsh means of remedying past wrongs, and did not question that some remedy was permissible when there was sufficient evidence of past discrimination. Here, however, it is unnecessary to consider whether not being hired is less burdensome

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than being discharged, because the government is not pressed to do either on the basis of political affiliation. Pp. 76-79.

868 F.2d 943 (CA7 1989), affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

BRENNAN, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which WHITE, MARSHALL, BLACKMUN, and STEVENS, JJ., joined. STEVENS, J., filed a concurring opinion, post, p. 79. SCALIA, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which REHNQUIST, C.J., and KENNEDY, J., joined, and in which O'CONNOR, J., joined as to Parts II and III, post, p. 92.

BRENNAN, J., lead opinion

Justice BRENNAN delivered the opinion of the Court.

To the victor belong only those spoils that may be constitutionally obtained. Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976), and Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980), [110 S.Ct. 2732] decided that the First Amendment forbids government officials to discharge or threaten to discharge public employees solely for not being supporters of the political party in power, unless party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the position involved.

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Today we are asked to decide the constitutionality of several related political patronage practices -- whether promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions involving low-level public employees may be constitutionally based on party affiliation and support. We hold that they may not.


The petition and cross-petition before us arise from a lawsuit protesting certain employment policies and practices instituted by Governor James Thompson of Illinois.1 On November 12, 1980, the Governor issued an executive order proclaiming a hiring freeze for every agency, bureau, board, or commission subject to his control. The order prohibits state officials from hiring any employee, filling any vacancy, creating any new position, or taking any similar action. It affects approximately 60,000 state positions. More than 5,000 of these become available each year as a result of resignations, retirements, deaths, expansion, and reorganizations. The order proclaims that "no exceptions" are permitted without the Governor's "express permission after submission of appropriate requests to [his] office." Governor's Executive Order No. 5 (Nov. 12, 1980), Brief for Petitioners 11 (emphasis added).

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Requests for the Governor's "express permission" have allegedly become routine. Permission has been granted or withheld through an agency expressly created for this purpose, the Governor's Office of Personnel (Governor's Office). Agencies have been screening applicants under Illinois' civil service system, making their personnel choices, and submitting them as requests to be approved or disapproved by the Governor's Office. Among the employment decisions for which approvals have been required are new hires, promotions, transfers, and recalls after layoffs.

By means of the freeze, according to petitioners, the Governor has been using the Governor's Office to operate a political patronage system to limit state employment and beneficial employment-related decisions to those who are supported by the Republican Party. In reviewing an agency's request that a particular applicant be approved for a particular position, the Governor's Office has looked at whether the applicant voted in Republican primaries in past election years, whether the applicant has provided financial or other support to the Republican Party and its candidates, whether the applicant has promised to join and work for the Republican Party in the future, and whether the applicant has the support of Republican Party officials at state or local levels.

Five people (including the three petitioners) brought suit against various Illinois and Republican Party officials in the United States District Court for the Central District of Illinois.2 They alleged that they had suffered [110 S.Ct. 2733] discrimination with respect to state employment because they had not been supporters of the State's Republican Party and that this discrimination violates the First Amendment. Cynthia B.

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Rutan has been working for the State since 1974 as a rehabilitation counselor. She claims that, since 1981, she has been repeatedly denied promotions to supervisory positions for which she was qualified because she had not worked for or supported the Republican Party. Franklin Taylor, who operates road equipment for the Illinois Department of Transportation, claims that he was denied a promotion in 1983 because he did not have the support of the local Republican Party. Taylor also maintains that he was denied a transfer to an office nearer to his home because of opposition from the Republican Party...

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