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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.