Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980)

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When a newly appointed Democratic public defender discharged two assistant public defenders because they were Republicans, the discharged lawyers claimed that their First Amendment freedoms of belief and association were violated. In a prior case, Elrod v. Burns, the U.S. Supreme Court had held that political patronage dismissals were constitutionally valid when there is a demonstrable need for the political loyalty of employees, but that those circumstances were limited to employees who perform a policymaking function or are entrusted with confidential political information. In Branti, the Supreme Court broadened Elrod by concluding that ‘‘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.’’ The public defender could not sustain that burden because the function of assistant public defenders is to defend accused criminal defendants. Whatever policy an assistant public defender makes ‘‘relates to the needs of individual clients and not to any partisan political interests,’’ and the confidential information obtained by an assistant public defender ‘‘has no bearing whatsoever on partisan political concerns.’’

Later cases extended this principle. In Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, the Court applied its patronage doctrine to include sanctions short of discharge and O’Hare Truck Services, Inc. v. City of Northlake extended its scope to independent contractors terminated for partisan political reasons.


References and Further Reading

  • Brinkley, Martin H., Despoiling the Spoils: Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, North Carolina Law Review 69 (1991): 719
  • Johnson, Ronald N., and Gary D. Libecap, Courts, A Protected Bureaucracy, and Reinventing Government, Arizona Law Review 37 (1995): 791

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976) 
  • O’Hare Truck Services, Inc. v. City of Northlake, 518 U.S. 712 (1996) 
  • Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990) 

See also Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976); Freedom of Association; Political Patronage and First Amendment; Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990)