Global Freedom of Expression

Elrod v. Burns

Closed Expands Expression

Key Details

  • Mode of Expression
    Non-verbal Expression
  • Date of Decision
    June 28, 1976
  • Outcome
    Affirmed Lower Court
  • Case Number
    427 U.S. 347 (1976)
  • Region & Country
    United States, North America
  • Judicial Body
    Supreme (court of final appeal)
  • Type of Law
    Constitutional Law, Employment Law/Workplace
  • Themes
    Political Expression

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Case Analysis

Case Summary and Outcome

The Supreme Court ordered the lower court to grant a preliminary injunction in favor of employees who were victims of political patronage. A Sheriff from the Democratic political party threatened to discharge employees for failing to support the Democratic Party. The employees filed a complaint against the Illinois Sheriff’s Office and Democratic Party, seeking injunctive and declaratory relief. The Court reasoned that political patronage violates the First Amendment to the extent that it limits or compels political belief and association. Hence, the Court decided that the employees were entitled to injunctive relief since their First Amendment freedoms were threatened even if for a short period of time.


In 1970, a newly elected Sheriff of the Democrat party took over from his Republican predecessor in Cook County, Illinois and began to engage in partisan patronage. A group of employees filed a complaint against the Sheriff’s Office and the Democratic Party seeking injunctive, declaratory, and other forms of relief.

Their complaint alleged that the Sheriff’s Office had threatened to discharge employees who failed to align with the Democratic Party. Employees were required to pledge their political allegiance to the party, work for the election of party candidates, contribute a portion of their earnings to the party, or obtain sponsorship from a party member.  The Sheriff’s Office discharged one employee for failure to do so, others were threatened.

The Plaintiffs were all members of the Republican Party and were non-civil service employees who were not otherwise protected from arbitrary discharge. The Plaintiffs claimed that their coerced allegiance to the Democratic Party in order to keep their employment violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments of the U.S. Constitution.

The District Court dismissed their complaint for failure to state a claim in which relief could be granted. The Court of Appeals reversed and remanded, instructing the lower court to grant the preliminary injunctive relief. The Court of Appeals found that the complaint stated a legally cognizable claim and ordered the lower court to grant preliminary injunctive relief. The U.S. Supreme Court granted certiorai.

Decision Overview

J. Brennan delivered the opinion of the Court affirming the Court of Appeals which had remanded the case back to the District Court with instructions to grant the plaintiffs preliminary injunctive relief.

The Court considered the First Amendment in light of political patronage.  The Cook County Sheriff’s dismissal of employees based on partisan affiliation is one type of political patronage. The Court strongly warned against political patronage for a number of policy reasons ranging from corruption to the rise of totalitarianism. While the Court stated that patronage employment had declined, it was firmly of the view that it was the practice itself, not the frequency, that must withstand constitutional muster.

The Court said that political  patronage not only placed a restraint on freedom of belief and association, it also undermined the free functioning of the electoral process.  Conditioning public employment on partisan support prevented support of competing political interests. Financial concerns deterred both existing employees and those seeking jobs from such support. The Court said this was a political maneuver that starved out the opposition and tipped the electoral process in favor of the incumbent.

The Court stressed that political belief and association were core to the values protected by the First Amendment and that these protections allow for open political discourse that is essential to democracy. Patronage employment to the extent that it compels or limits political belief and association was completely contrary to the First Amendment.

However, the Court went on to acknowledge that the First Amendment was not absolute and restraints were permissible on certain conditions and for appropriate reasons. The state action must meet a standard of exacting scrutiny; it cannot merely be justified by the existence of a legitimate state interest, the interest must be paramount; and the burden falls on the government to prove the existence of such a vital interest. The Petitioners put forward several interests to support the use of patronage, all of which were ultimately struck down by the Court. They attempted to argue that patronage was needed for efficiency to which the Court countered that the wholesale replacement of large numbers of employees every time a party change occurs and the knowledge that employment is contingent on the next political party is contrary to efficiency.

Secondly, the Petitioners argued that there was a need for political loyalty of employees so that representative government is not undercut by tactics obstructing the policies of a new administration. On this point the Court said it was sufficient to limit patronage dismissals to policy-making positions, and that the burden of establishing this justification as to each Respondent would fall on the Petitioners when the case was heard on remand with any issues of doubt being decided in favor of the Respondent.

The third interest raised by the Government in supporting patronage dismissals and justifying a restraint on the First Amendment was the preservation of the democratic purpose. However the Court was not persuaded that patronage dismissals were the the least restrictive alternative to achieving the contribution they make to the democratic purpose. On the contrary, the Court said, the process functions as well, if not better, without patronage employment which can violate the First and Fourteenth Amendments as they do in the present case.

In these circumstances, the Court said that the Respondents had thus stated a valid claim for relief. The Court went onto consider whether the Court of Appeals had been right to direct the District Court to grant injunctive relief, the District Court having denied the claim because the complaint didn’t constitute a sufficient showing of irreparable injury. The Court said that the Respondents were either being threatened with discharge or had been discharged because of their political beliefs. It was therefore clear that First Amendment interests were being threatened or impaired and that the loss of First Amendment freedoms even for a short time constitutes irreparable injury.

The Supreme Court affirmed the decision of the Court of Appeals.

Decision Direction

Quick Info

Decision Direction indicates whether the decision expands or contracts expression based on an analysis of the case.

Expands Expression

The Supreme Court protected the First Amendment rights of political association and belief by preventing the government from engaging in employment patronage. Discharge from non-civil, non-policymaking employment is contrary to practices in democracies which thrive on political discourse and where employees are not penalized for their political beliefs.

Global Perspective

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Global Perspective demonstrates how the court’s decision was influenced by standards from one or many regions.

Table of Authorities

National standards, law or jurisprudence

Case Significance

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Case significance refers to how influential the case is and how its significance changes over time.

The decision establishes a binding or persuasive precedent within its jurisdiction.

The U.S. Supreme Court decision is binding on all lower courts in the U.S.  The case affects all cases regarding employment patronage of non-civil service government employees and reaffirms that First Amendment protections apply to both political expression and political association.

The decision was cited in:

Official Case Documents

Official Case Documents:

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