Last week I said most state positions are supposed to be protected from political influence, but the courts have ruled that some jobs, such as a governor’s spokesperson, can be based on party affiliation. For those of you who want a little more legal background, here’s some food for thought:
In 1990, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in Rutan et al v. Republican Party of Illinois et al that hiring decisions involving low-level public employees may NOT be based on party affiliation or support. The suit dates back to November 1980, when then-Gov. James Thompson proclaimed a hiring freeze. No one was to be hired, fired or promoted without permission from the governor’s office. They looked at everything from whether the person voted in Republican primaries to whether the person had donated to or had the backing of the GOP. Five employees said politics impacted their employment. One was Cynthia Rutan, a rehabilitation counselor who said she had been denied promotions because she hadn’t worked for the Republican Party.
The court said the governor’s office crossed the line and violated the employees’ First Amendment rights. Referring to a 1976 case, Elrod v. Burns, the court said, “Political parties have already survived the substantial decline in patronage employment practices in this century,” and, “Second, patronage decidedly impairs the elective process by discouraging free political expression by public employees.”
In Elrod, Cook County Republicans holding jobs that were not protected by the state’s civil service code claimed they were fired when a Democratic sheriff came into office, which they said violated their rights under the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The state Supreme Court agreed.
The line of protection (saying you cannot hire, fire or promote based on political allegiance) seems to be moving lower and lower on the state’s staff list. Read more about patronage rulings at Illinois Issues’ Retrospective.