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Lawson v. Union County Clerk of Court (Amicus Brief)

In this brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the Brennan Center argues that firing a government employee merely for running for office not only violates her First Amendment rights, but also undermines everyone’s interest in fostering competition, opportunity, and participation in democratic elections.

Published: March 16, 2015

In this brief to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Fourth Circuit, the Bren­nan Center argues that firing a govern­ment employee merely for running for office not only viol­ates her First Amend­ment rights but also under­mines every­one’s interest in foster­ing compet­i­tion, oppor­tun­ity, and parti­cip­a­tion in demo­cratic elec­tions.   

On March 16, 2015, the Bren­nan Center for Justice, along with Common Cause and the Pennsylvania Center for the First Amend­ment, filed an amicus brief authored by Eugene Volokh, Gary T. Schwartz Professor of Law at UCLA School of Law, in Lawson v. Union County Clerk of Court. The brief supports Melanie Lawson, the plaintiff-appel­lant, in her appeal of the lower court’s decision uphold­ing her termin­a­tion.

Lawson, while on leave from her job as a deputy clerk of court in Union County, S.C., in 2012 had run for office to replace her boss, the county clerk of court. She campaigned on the message that her 20 years of exper­i­ence work­ing in the clerk’s office would make her an effect­ive clerk of court.  She lost the elec­tion and then was fired from her job.

The right of public employ­ees under the First Amend­ment to be protec­ted from retali­ation for their personal polit­ical activ­ity is well estab­lished. There is a narrow excep­tion for employ­ees whose jobs entail poli­cy­mak­ing that requires polit­ical alle­gi­ance to lead­er­ship; but, the brief argues, Lawson’s role did not fit that excep­tion. She performed strictly admin­is­trat­ive tasks—­col­lect­ing receipts, managing dock­ets, publish­ing judges’ orders, track­ing data—­for the county’s family court. Nor was there any evid­ence that Lawson’s candid­acy disrup­ted the func­tion­ing of the clerk’s office.

The district court erro­neously ruled that Lawson’s admin­is­trat­ive job did require polit­ical alle­gi­ance to her boss and that her candid­acy there­fore was not protec­ted by the First Amend­ment, the Bren­nan Center and fellow amici contend. This ruling “does not merely limit Lawson’s First Amend­ment rights; it also shrinks polit­ical oppor­tun­ity and chills demo­cratic parti­cip­a­tion on a wider scale,” the brief argues. Amici are call­ing on the Fourth Circuit to reverse the U.S. District Court for the District of South Caro­lina:

The district court’s hold­ing lets the govern­ment unjus­ti­fi­ably deter some of the most qual­i­fied people from running for office—­ex­per­i­enced govern­ment work­ers with the expert­ise and cred­ib­il­ity to offer voters viable altern­at­ives to incum­bents. By allow­ing incum­bents to threaten such would-be candid­ates with job loss, the district court’s hold­ing effect­ively excludes the most qual­i­fied newcomers from the polit­ical process and costs citizens the account­ab­il­ity, effi­ciency, and oppor­tun­ity that arise when incum­bents face viable compet­i­tion for elec­tion.

The Bren­nan Center’s brief is avail­able here.