Elrod v. Burns

Decision Date28 June 1976
Docket NumberNo. 74-1520,74-1520
PartiesRichard J. ELROD, etc., et al., Petitioners, v. John BURNS et al
CourtU.S. Supreme Court
Syllabus

Respondents, Republicans who are non-civil-service employees of the Cook County, Ill., Sheriff's Office, brought this suit as a class action for declaratory, injunctive, and other relief against petitioners, including the newly elected Sheriff, a Democrat, and county Democratic organizations, alleging that in violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and various statutes, including the Civil Rights Act of 1871, respondents were discharged or (in the case of one respondent) threatened with discharge for the sole reason that they were not affiliated with or sponsored by the Democratic Party. Finding that respondents had failed to show irreparable injury, the District Court denied their motion for a preliminary injunction and ultimately dismissed their complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded with instructions to enter appropriate preliminary injunctive relief. Held: The judgment is affirmed. Pp. 351-374; 374-375.

509 F.2d 1133, affirmed.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN, joined by Mr. Justice WHITE and Mr. Justice MARSHALL, concluded that:

1. Neither the political-question doctrine nor the separation-of-powers doctrine makes this case inappropriate for judicial resolution, since, Inter alia, neither doctrine applies to the federal judiciary's relationship to the States. Pp. 355-373.

2. The practice of patronage dismissals violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments and respondents thus stated a valid claim for relief. Pp. 355-373.

(a) Patronage dismissals severely restrict political belief and association, which constitute the core of those activities protected by the First Amendment, and government may not, without seriously inhibiting First Amendment rights, force a public employee to relinquish his right to political association as the price of holding a public job. Perry v. Sindermann, 408 U.S. 593, 92 S.Ct. 2694, 33 L.Ed.2d 570; Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589, 87 S.Ct. 675, 17 L.Ed.2d 629. Pp. 355-360.

(b) Though First Amendment rights are not absolute, they may be curtailed only by interests of vital importance, the burden of proving the existence of which rests upon the government, Buckley v. Valeo, 424 U.S. 1, 94, 96 S.Ct. 612, 46 L.Ed.2d 659. If conditioning the retention of public employment on the employee's support of the in-party is to survive constitutional challenge, it must further some vital government end by a means that is least restrictive of freedom of belief and association in achieving that end, and the benefit gained must outweigh the loss of the constitutionally protected rights. Pp. 360-363.

(c) The inefficiency resulting from wholesale replacement of public employees on a change of administration belies the argument that employees not of the same political persuasion as the controlling party will not be motivated to work effectively; nor is it clear that patronage appointees are more qualified than those they replace. Since unproductive employees may always be discharged and merit systems are available, it is clear that less drastic means than patronage dismissals are available to insure the vital need for government efficiency and effectiveness. Pp. 364-367.

(d) The need to insure that policies that the electorate has sanctioned are effectively implemented can be fully satisfied by limiting patronage dismissals to policymaking positions. Pp. 367-368.

(e) Patronage dismissals cannot be justified by their contribution to the proper functioning of our democratic process through their assistance to partisan politics, since political parties are nurtured by other methods that are less intrusive. More fundamentally, any contribution of patronage dismissals to the democratic process does not suffice to override their severe encroachment on First Amendment freedoms. Pp. 368-373.

3. Since at the time the preliminary injunction was sought one of the named respondents was threatened with job loss, as were many of the class that respondents were seeking to have certified (if they had not already been coerced into supporting the Democratic Party to avoid discharge), First Amendment interests were either threatened or being impaired. Thus, irreparable injury was shown, and since respondents demonstrated a probability of success on the merits, the issuance of the injunction was properly directed by the Court of Appeals. Pp. 373-374.

Mr. Justice STEWART, joined by Mr. Justice BLACKMUN, concluded that a nonpolicymaking, nonconfidential government employee may not be discharged from a job that he is satisfactorily performing, upon the sole ground of his political beliefs, and that no other issue is involved in this case. Pp. 374-375.

Thomas A. Foran, Chicago, Ill., for petitioners.

John C. Tucker, Chicago, Ill., for respondents.

Mr. Justice BRENNAN announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion in which Mr. Justice WHITE and Mr. Justice MARSHALL joined.

This case presents the question whether public employees who allege that they were discharged or threatened with discharge solely because of their partisan political affiliation or nonaffiliation state a claim for deprivation of constitutional rights secured by the First and Fourteenth Amendments.

I

Respondents brought this suit in the United States District Court for the Northern District of Illinois against petitioners, Richard J. Elrod, Richard J. Daley, the Democratic Organization of Cook County, and theemocratic County Central Committee of Cook County. Their complaint alleged that they were discharged or threatened with discharge solely for the reason that they were not affiliated with or sponsored by the Democratic Party. They sought declaratory, injunctive, and other relief for violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, 1988. Finding that the respondents failed to make an adequate showing of irreparable injury, the District Court denied their motion for a preliminary injunction and ultimately dismissed their complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The United States Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit, relying on Illinois State Employees Union v. Lewis, 473 F.2d 561 (CA7 1972), reversed and remanded, holding that respondents' complaint stated a legally cognizable claim. The Court of Appeals instructed the District Court to enter appropriate preliminary injunctive relief. 509 F.2d 1133 (CA7 1975). We granted certiorari. 423 U.S. 821, 96 S.Ct. 33, 46 L.Ed.2d 37. We affirm.1

II

In December 1970, the Sheriff of Cook County, a Republican, was replaced by Richard Elrod, a Democrat. At that time, respondents, all Republicans, were employees of the Cook County Sheriff's Office. They were non-civil-service employees and, therefore, not covered by any statute, ordinance, or regulation protecting them from arbitrary discharge. One respondent, John Burns, was Chief Deputy of the Process Division and supervised all departments of the Sheriff's Office working on the seventh floor of the building housing that office. Frank Vargas was a bailiff and security guard at the Juvenile Court of Cook County. Fred L. Buckley was employed as a process server in the office. Joseph Dennard was an employee in the office.

It has been the practice of the Sheriff of Cook County, when he assumes office from a Sheriff of a different political party, to replace non-civil-service employees of the Sheriffs' Office with members of his own party when the existing employees lack or fail to obtain requisite support from, or fail to affiliate with, that party. Consequently, subsequent to Sheriff Elrod's assumption of office, respondents, with the exception of Buckley, were discharged from their employment solely 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. Buckley is in imminent danger of being discharged solely for the same reasons. Respondents allege that the discharges were ordered by Sheriff Elrod under the direction of the codefendants in this suit.

III

At the outset, we are met with objections to our consideration of this case based on the political-question doctrine and the principle of separation of powers. These objections need not long detain us.

A question presented to this Court for decision is properly deemed political when its resolution is committed by the Constitution to a branch of the Federal Government other than this Court. Baker v. Carr, 369 U.S. 186, 217, 82 S.Ct. 691, 710, 7 L.Ed.2d 663 (1962). Thus, "it is the relationship between the judiciary and the coordinate branches of the Federal Government, and not the federal judiciary's relationship to the States, which gives rise to the 'political question.' " Id., 369 U.S. at 210, 82 S.Ct. at 706. That matters related to a State's, or even the Federal Government's, elective process are implicated by this Court's resolution of a question is not sufficient to justify our withholding decision of the question. In particular, in this case, ware asked only to determine whether the politically motivated discharge of employees of the Cook County Sheriff's Office comports with the limitations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments. This involves solely a question of constitutional interpretation, a function ultimately the responsibility of this Court. Id., 369 U.S. at 211, 82 S.Ct. at 706. See Powell v. McCormack, 395 U.S. 486, 518-549, 89 S.Ct. 1944, 1962-1978, 23 L.Ed.2d 491 (1969). Petitioners do not, and could not, argue that a decision as to the constitutionality of the Sheriff's practices should be left to Congress or the President. The political-question doctrine, therefore, is no obstacle to judicial review in this case. See Williams v. Rhodes, 393...

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