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

2012-06-18 10:09:10

Cook County, Illinois was notorious for patronage. The Democratic Party hired supporters for city and county jobs and required them to work on behalf of its political candidates. When Richard Elrod was elected Cook County sheriff in 1970, he promptly fired several Republican employees of the office. Those fired brought suit under the First Amendment, alleging that they were discharged because they were not Democrats.

The Supreme Court agreed, relying upon its decisions in loyalty oath cases, such as Keyishian v. Board of Regents (1967), which held that conditioning a public job upon political belief was unconstitutional. Firing an employee based on political belief or association amounted to coercion of the individual’s freedom of association and could deter others who would like to apply for city jobs from the free exercise of speech and association.

The defendants argued that political patronage was necessary to ensure efficient and loyal employees and to maintain a strong democratic political party system. Applying the high level of review required when government action affects First Amendment rights, the Court rejected this argument. These interests could be served by politically based dismissals of policymaking employees only (defined in Branti v. Finkel [1980] as those where ‘‘party affiliation is an appropriate requirement for the effective performance of the public office involved’’).

Elrod prohibited political firing, but left political hiring an open question. This was held unconstitutional in Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois (1990). Elrod also invited lawsuits about the reasons employees had been fired and whether they were policymakers and thus exempt from Elrod ’s prohibition.


References and Further Reading

  • Allswang, John M. Bosses, Machines and Urban Voters. Rev. ed. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1986.
  • Bowman, Cynthia Grant, ‘We Don’t Want Anybody Sent’: The Death of Patronage Hiring in Chicago, Northwestern University Law Review 86 (1991): 1:57–95.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980)
  • Keyishian v. Board of Regents, 385 U.S. 589 (1967)
  • Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990)

See also Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507 (1980); Political Patronage and the First Amendment; Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990); Unconstitutional Conditions