Abolition of the “spoils system” in federal employment brought with it restrictions on political activities by federal employees. In 1876, federal employees were prohibited from requesting from, giving to, or receiving from any other federal employee money for political purposes, and the Civil Service Act of 1883 more broadly forbade civil service employees to use their official authority or influence to coerce political action of any person or to interfere with elections.770 By the Hatch Act, federal employees, and many state employees as well, are forbidden to “take any active part in political management or in political campaigns.”771 As applied through the regulations and rulings of the Office of Personnel Management, formerly the Civil Service Commission, the Act prevents employees from running for public office, distributing campaign literature, playing an active role at political meetings, circulating nomination petitions, attending a political convention except as a spectator, publishing a letter soliciting votes for a candidate, and all similar activity.772 The question is whether government, which may not prohibit citizens in general from engaging in these activities, may nonetheless so control the off-duty activities of its own employees.
In United Public Workers v. Mitchell,773 the Court answered in the affirmative. While the Court refused to consider the claims of persons who had not yet engaged in forbidden political activities, it ruled against a mechanical employee of the Mint who had done so. The Court’s opinion, by Justice Reed, recognized that the restrictions of political activities imposed by the Act did in some measure impair First Amendment and other constitutional rights,774 but it based its decision upon the established principle that no right is absolute. The standard by which the Court judged the validity of the permissible impairment of First Amendment rights was a due process standard of reasonableness.775 Thus, changes in the standards of judging incidental restrictions on expression suggested the possibility of a reconsideration of Mitchell.776 In Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers, however, a divided Court, reaffirming Mitchell, sustained the Act’s limitations upon political activity against a range of First Amendment challenges.777 The Court emphasized that the interest of the government in forbidding partisan political activities by its employees was so substantial that it overrode the rights of those employees to engage in political activities and association;778 therefore, a statute that barred in plain language a long list of activities would clearly be valid.779 The issue in Letter Carriers, however, was whether the language that Congress had enacted, forbidding employees to take “an active part in political management or in political campaigns,”780 was unconstitutional on its face, either because the statute was too imprecise to allow government employees to determine what was forbidden and what was permitted, or because the statute swept in under its coverage conduct that Congress could not forbid as well as conduct subject to prohibition or regulation. With respect to vagueness, plaintiffs contended and the lower court had held that the quoted proscription was inadequate to provide sufficient guidance and that the only further elucidation Congress had provided was in a section stating that the forbidden activities were the same activities that the Commission had as of 1940, and reaching back to 1883, “determined are at the time of the passage of this act prohibited on the part of employees . . . by the provisions of the civil-service rules. . . .”781 This language had been included, it was contended, to deprive the Commission of power to alter thousands of rulings it had made that were not available to employees and that were in any event mutually inconsistent and too broad.
The Court held, on the contrary, that Congress had intended to confine the Commission to the boundaries of its rulings as of 1940 but had further intended the Commission by a process of case-by-case adjudication to flesh out the prohibition and to give content to it. The Commission had done that. It had regularly summarized in understandable terms the rules that it applied, and it was authorized as well to issue advisory opinions to employees uncertain of the propriety of contemplated conduct. “[T]here are limitations in the English language with respect to being both specific and manageably brief,” said the Court, but it thought the prohibitions as elaborated in Commission regulations and rulings were “set out in terms that the ordinary person exercising ordinary common sense can sufficiently understand and comply with, without sacrifice to the public interests.”782 There were conflicts, the Court conceded, between some of the things forbidden and some of the protected expressive activities, but these were at most marginal. Thus, some conduct arguably protected did under some circumstances so partake of partisan activities as to be properly proscribable. But the Court would not invalidate the entire statute for this degree of overbreadth.783 Subsequently, in Bush v. Lucas784 the Court held that the civil service laws and regulations constitute a sufficiently “elaborate, comprehensive scheme” to afford federal employees an adequate remedy for deprivation of First Amendment rights as a result of disciplinary actions by supervisors, and that therefore there is no need to create an additional judicial remedy for the constitutional violation.
The Hatch Act cases were distinguished in United States v. National Treasury Employees Union (NTEU),785 in which the Court struck down an honoraria ban as applied to lower-level employees of the Federal Government. The honoraria ban suppressed employees’ right to free expression while the Hatch Act sought to protect that right, and also there was no evidence of improprieties in acceptance of honoraria by members of the plaintiff class of federal employees.786 The Court emphasized further difficulties with the “crudely crafted” honoraria ban: it was limited to expressive activities and had no application to other sources of outside income, it applied when neither the subjects of speeches and articles nor the persons or groups paying for them bore any connection to the employee’s job responsibilities, and it exempted a “series” of speeches or articles without also exempting individual articles and speeches. These “anomalies” led the Court to conclude that the “speculative benefits” of the ban were insufficient to justify the burdens it imposed on expressive activities.787
- 19 Stat. 143, § 6, 18 U.S.C. §§ 602–03, sustained in Ex parte Curtis, 106 U.S. 371 (1882); 22 Stat. 403, as amended, 5 U.S.C. § 7323. [Back to text]
- 53 Stat. 1147 § 9(a), (1939), as amended, 5 U.S.C. § 7324(a)(2). By 54 Stat. 767 (1940), as amended, 5 U.S.C. §§ 1501–08, the restrictions on political activity were extended to state and local governmental employees working in programs financed in whole or in part with federal funds. This provision was sustained against federalism challenges in Oklahoma v. Civil Service Comm’n, 330 U.S. 127 (1947). All the states have adopted laws patterned on the Hatch Act. See Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601, 604 (1973). [Back to text]
- The Commission on Political Activity of Government Personnel, Findings and Recommendations 11, 19–24 (Washington: 1968). [Back to text]
- 330 U.S. 75, 94–104 (1947). The decision was 4-to-3, with Justice Frankfurter joining the Court on the merits only after arguing that the Court lacked jurisdiction. [Back to text]
- 330 U.S. at 94–95. [Back to text]
- 330 U.S. at 101–02. [Back to text]
- The Act was held unconstitutional by a divided three-judge district court. National Ass’n of Letter Carriers v. Civil Service Comm’n, 346 F. Supp. 578 (D.D.C. 1972). [Back to text]
- 413 U.S. 548 (1973). In Broadrick v. Oklahoma, 413 U.S. 601 (1973), the Court refused to consider overbreadth attacks on a state statute of much greater coverage because the plaintiffs had engaged in conduct that the statute clearly could constitutionally proscribe. [Back to text]
- The interests the Court recognized as served by the proscription on partisan activities were (1) the interest in the efficient and fair operation of governmental activities and the appearance of such operation, (2) the interest in fair elections, and (3) the interest in protecting employees from improper political influences. 413 U.S. at 557–67. [Back to text]
- 413 U.S. at 556. [Back to text]
- 413 U.S. at 554, 570 n.17. [Back to text]
- 413 U.S. at 570 n.17. [Back to text]
- 413 U.S. at 578–79. [Back to text]
- 413 U.S. at 580–81. [Back to text]
- 462 U.S. 367, 385 (1983). [Back to text]
- 513 U.S. 454 (1995). [Back to text]
- See 513 U.S. at 471. The plaintiff class consisted of all Executive Branch employees below grade GS–16. Also covered by the ban were senior executives, Members of Congress, and other federal officers, but the possibility of improprieties by these groups did not justify application of the ban to “the vast rank and file of federal employees below grade GS–16.”Id. at 472. [Back to text]
- 513 U.S. at 477. [Back to text]