Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois, 497 U.S. 62 (1990)

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Although Rutan was not the first case about political patronage to reach the Supreme Court, it was the most farreaching. In 1976, the Court had decided in Elrod v. Burns (1976) that it was unconstitutional to fire a public employee based upon political affiliation. Elrod arose out of the Democratic political machine in Chicago; ironically, Rutan was a suit alleging political hiring, promotions, and transfers by the Republican governor of Illinois.

The Court of Appeals found that the challenged practices in Rutan did not burden the First Amendment rights of a job seeker as severely as did the firing in Elrod and thus were not unconstitutional. The Supreme Court split five to four in overturning this decision. These practices placed an impermissible burden on free speech and association, it held, and were not necessary to further a vital governmental interest, as required to pass scrutiny under the very high level of review given to state actions interfering with First Amendment rights.

The majority opinion evoked a vehement dissent by Justice Scalia, on the grounds that patronage was as old as the United States and had played an important role in democratizing politics and maintaining the party system. The lower courts did not appear to like the majority holding in Rutan either, and many refused to extend its logic to the awarding of government contracts in return for political support and financial contributions. The Supreme Court held that practice to be unconstitutional as well in O’Hare Truck Service v. City of Northlake (1996).


References and Further Reading

  • Bowman, Cynthia Grant, The Law of Patronage at a Crossroads, Journal of Law and Politics 12 (1996): 2:341–63.
  • Freedman, Anne. Patronage: An American Tradition. Chicago: Nelson-Hall Publishers, 1994.

Cases and Statutes Cited

  • Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976)
  • O’Hare Truck Service v. City of Northlake, 518 U.S. 712 (1996)

See also Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347 (1976); Political Patronage and First Amendment