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ELROD V. BURNS, 427 U. S. 347 (1976)

U.S. Supreme Court

Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976)

Elrod v. Burns

No. 74-1520

Argued April 19, 1976

Decided June 28, 1976

427 U.S. 347


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. 427 U. S. 351-374; 427 U. S. 374-375.

509 F.2d 1133, affirmed.


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. 427 U. S. 351-353.

2. The practice of patronage dismissals violates the First and Fourteenth Amendments, and respondents thus stated a valid claim for relief. Pp. 427 U. S. 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; Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U. S. 589. Pp. 427 U. S. 355-360.

Page 427 U. S. 348

(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, 424 U. S. 94. 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. 427 U. S. 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. 427 U. S. 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. 427 U. S. 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. 427 U. S. 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. 427 U. S. 373-374.

Page 427 U. S. 349

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 belief, and that no other issue is involved in this case. Pp. 427 U. S. 374-375.

BRENNAN, J., announced the judgment of the Court and delivered an opinion, in which WHITE and MARSHALL, JJ., joined. STEWART, J., filed an opinion concurring in the judgment, in which BLACKMUN, J., joined, post, p. 427 U. S. 374. BURGER, C.J., filed a dissenting opinion, post, p. 427 U. S. 375. POWELL, J., filed a dissenting opinion, in which BURGER, C.J., and REHNQUIST, J., joined, post, p. 427 U. S. 376. STEVENS, J., took no part in the consideration or decision of the case.

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