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Law School Case Brief

Rutan v. Republican Party - 497 U.S. 62, 110 S. Ct. 2729 (1990)


Promotions, transfers, and recalls after layoffs based on political affiliation or support are an impermissible infringement on public employees rights under U.S. Const., amend. I.


The Illinois Governor issued an executive order instituting a hiring freeze, whereby state officials were prohibited from hiring any employee, filling any vacancy, creating any new position, or taking any similar action without the Governor's "express permission." Petitioners in No. 88-1872 and cross-respondents in No. 88-2074 -- 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 violated 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 and Branti v. Finkel had found that the patronage practice of discharging public employees on the basis of their political affiliation violated the First Amendment, the court held that other patronage practices would violate the Amendment only when they were the "substantial equivalent of a dismissal," i. e., when they would lead reasonable persons to resign. The court concluded 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.


Could political patronage practices (whether they involved promotion, transfer, recall, ad hiring decisions) be constitutionally based on party affiliation and support?




The United States Supreme Court reversed the decision of the appellate court, and held that the political patronage practices, whether they involved promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions, could not be constitutionally based on party affiliation and support because they involved low-level employees in positions where party affiliation was an inappropriate requirement. The Court held that unless the patronage practices were narrowly tailored to further vital government interests, they impermissibly encroached on freedoms under U.S. Const., amend. I.

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