Rutan v. Republican Party of Illinois (88-1872), 497 U.S. 62 (1990)
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NOTE: Where it is feasible, a syllabus (headnote) will be released, as is being done in connection with this case, at the time the opinion is issued. The syllabus constitutes no part of the opinion of the Court but has been prepared by the Reporter of Decisions for the convenience of the reader. See United States v. Detroit Lumber Co., 200 U.S. 321, 337.



certiorari to the united states court of appeals for the seventh circuit

No. 88-1872. Argued January 16, 1990 — Decided June 21, 1990

The Illinois Governor issued an executive order instituting a hiring freeze, whereby state officials are prohibited from hiring any employee, filling any vacancy, creating any new position, or taking any similar action without the Governor's "express permission." Petitioners in No. 88-1872 and cross-respondents in No. 88-2074 — an applicant for employment, employees who had been denied promotions or transfers, and former employees who had not been recalled after layoffs — brought suit in the District Court, alleging that, by means of the freeze, the Governor was operating a political patronage system; that they had suffered discrimination in state employment because they had not been Republican Party supporters; and that this discrimination violates the First Amendment. The District Court dismissed the complaint for failure to state a claim upon which relief could be granted. The Court of Appeals affirmed in part and reversed in part. Noting that Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 507, and Branti v. Finkel, 445 U.S. 507, had found that the patronage practice of discharging public employees on the basis of their political affiliation violates the First Amendment, the court held that other patronage practices violate the Amendment only when they are the "substantial equivalent of a dismissal," i.e., when they would lead reasonable persons to resign. The court concluded, based on Wygant v. Jackson Bd. of Education, 476 U.S. 267, that rejecting an employment application did not impose a hardship comparable to the loss of a job. Thus, it dismissed the hiring claim, but remanded the others for further proceedings.

Held: The rule of Elrod and Branti extends to promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions based on party affiliation and support, and petitioners and cross-respondents have stated claims upon which relief may be granted. Pp. 5-16.

(a) Promotions, transfers, and recalls based on political affiliation or support are an impermissible infringement on public employees' First Amendment rights. Even though petitioners and cross-respondents have no legal entitlement to the promotions, transfers, and recalls, the government may not rely on a basis that infringes their constitutionally protected interests to deny them these valuable benefits. Perry v. Sin dermann, 408 U.S. 593, 597. Significant penalties are imposed on those employees who exercise their First Amendment rights. Those who do not compromise their beliefs stand to lose the considerable increases in pay and job satisfaction attendant to promotions, the shorter commuting hours and lower maintenance expenses incident to transfers to more convenient work locations, and even the jobs themselves in the case of recalls. As in Elrod and Branti, these patronage practices are not narrowly tailored to serve vital government interests. A government's interest in securing effective employees can be met by discharging, demoting, or transferring persons whose work is deficient, and its interest in securing employees who will loyally implement its policies can be adequately served by choosing or dismissing high-level employees on the basis of their political views. Likewise, the "preservation of the democratic process" is not furthered by these patronage decisions, since political parties are nurtured by other, less intrusive and equally effective methods, and since patronage decidedly impairs the elective process by discouraging public employees' free political expression. Pp. 8-12.

(b) The standard used by the Court of Appeals to measure alleged patronage practices in government employment is unduly restrictive because it fails to recognize that there are deprivations less harsh than dismissal that nevertheless press state employees and applicants to conform their beliefs and associations to some state-selected orthdoxy. Pp. 12-13.

(c) Patronage hiring places burdens on free speech and association similar to those imposed by patronage promotions, transfers, and recalls. Denial of a state job is a serious privation, since such jobs provide financial, health, and other benefits; since there may be openings with the State when business in the private sector is slow; and since there are occupations for which the government is the sole or major employer. Under this Court's sustained precedent, conditioning hiring decisions on political belief and association plainly constitutes an unconstitutional condition, unless the government has a vital interest in doing so. See, e.g., Branti, supra, at 515-516. There is no such government interest here, for the same reasons that the government lacks justification for patronage promotions, transfers, and recalls. It is inappropriate to rely on Wygant to distinguish hiring from dismissal in this context, since that case was concerned with the least harsh means of remedying past wrongs and did not question that some remedy was permissible when there was sufficient evidence of past discrimination. Here, however, it is unnecessary to consider whether not being hired is less burdensome than being discharged, because the government is not pressed to do either on the basis of political affiliation. Pp. 13-16.

868 F. 2d 943, affirmed in part, reversed in part, and remanded.

Brennan, J., delivered the opinion of the Court, in which White, Marshall, Blackmun, and Stevens, JJ., joined. Stevens, J., filed a concurring opinion. Scalia, J., filed a dissenting opinion in which Rehnquist, C.J., and Kennedy, J., joined, and in which O'Connor, J., joined as to Parts II and III.


1 Together with No. 88-2074, French et al. v. Rutan et al., also on certiorari to the same court.