New curbs on political patronage

The trend at all levels of government away from hiring and firing public employees on the basis of their ties to political parties was given welcome reinforcement by the US Supreme Court this week. In a 6 to 3 decision, the court ruled that a government worker cannot be fired simply because he or she belongs to the party that happens to be out of office at the time. The court, in effect, placed the burden of proving that party affiliation is an essential job requirement for any policymaking position on the official doing the firing.

The ruling, in broadening a 1976 decision that applied only to public employees not involved in policymaking or confidential work, provides government workers with greater job protection and, more important, helps ensure their freedom of political expression. The court was careful to note that some positions -- such as an elected official's advisers and assistants -- properly should be filled by political appointees. But in the case of the two assistant public defenders from Rockland County, New York, who were dismissed by a newly appointed public defender, a Democrat, because they were Republicans, the court said their work dealt primarily with defending individuals and therefore should not be contingent on their political allegiance.

In a strongly worded dissent, Justice Powell objected to the court's meddling in matters he felt were better left to the discretion of the legislative and executive branches. He warned, for instance, that "the court's vague, overbroad decision may cast serious doubt on the propriety of dismissing United States attorneys, as well as thousands of other policymaking employees at all levels of government because of their membership in a national political party."

In our view, there were many instances in the past when the public would have benefited if well-qualified US attorneys with outstanding records in office had not been dismissed simply because of politics. The firing of David W. Marston in Philadelphia was one well publicized example. President Carter has made significant progress toward selecting federal judges on the basis of merit but, unfortunately, politics has continued to dominate the choice of federal prosecutors.

In general, political patronage has been on the wane, as witness the recent Illinois primary and the Chicago Democratic organization's apparent inability to "deliver the vote" despite its long-time reliance on handing out political jobs. The Supreme Court's decision may further hasten the march toward merit selection of public servants. If so, the public will be the beneficiary in the long run.

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