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The ultimate inquiry is not whether the label "policymaker" or "confidential" fits a particular position; rather, the question is whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved.
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. The District Court found that the two attorneys had been satisfactorily performing their jobs and had been selected for discharge solely because of their political beliefs, and concluded that the Public Defender could not terminate their employment as assistant public defenders consistent with the First and Fourteenth Amendments. On appeal, the United States Court of Appeals for the Second Circuit affirmed, specifically holding that the District Court's findings of fact were adequately supported by the record, and expressing "no doubt" that the District Court was correct in concluding that an assistant public defender was neither a policymaker nor a confidential employee. Certiorari was granted. On certiorari, the public defender argued that so long as an employee was not asked to change his political affiliation or to contribute to or work for the party's candidates the employee could be dismissed with impunity.
Could the respondents be terminated solely because of their political beliefs?
The Court affirmed, holding that the First and Fourteenth Amendments protected the assistant public defenders who were satisfactorily performing their jobs from discharge solely because of their political beliefs, since the primary, if not only, responsibility of an assistant public defender was to represent individual citizens in controversy with the state. According to the Court, the assistants were not required to prove that they were coerced into changing their political allegiance. Rather, it was sufficient for them to prove that they were discharged solely because they were not affiliated with or sponsored by the Democratic Party. The Court noted that the only instance in which it would be acceptable to terminate an employee for his political beliefs would be if those beliefs interfered with the discharge of his public duties. In this instance, the Court determined that the assistants' continued employment could not be properly conditioned on their allegiance to the political party in control of the county government because their primary duty was to their clients.