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March 16, 2009

Maryland high court limits spoils system

The idea of newly-elected officials firing holdover employees who supported their opponents goes back centuries, but Maryland's Court of Appeals ruled Friday that the practice has limits.

The court ruled in favor of two former employees of the Caroline County State's Attorney's office, Susan Runnels and Marjorie Cooper. The two had worked there for two and 15 years, respectively (Runnels was even the SAO's employee of the year in 2001), and both supported their boss, Robert Greenleaf, a Democrat, in the 2002 election. Greenleaf lost in the general election to Jonathan Newell, a Republican. Before taking office, Newell pulled the pair (and a third employee) aside and informed them they would be terminated when he took office, which they were. The pair sued, claiming the firing was based on their campaigning for his opponent and were thus a violation of their constitutional rights.

The court ruled that Newell had no right to fire them because of their off-duty political activities and that their termination for those reasons amounted to abusive discharge, which entitles them to damages.

Also interesting in this case was the court's intro to its unanimous decision:

The choice of servants is of no little importance to a prince, and they are good or not according to the discrimination of the prince. And the first opinion which one forms of a prince, and of his understanding, is by observing the men he has around him; and when they are capable and faithful he may always be considered wise, because he has known how to recognize the capable and to keep them faithful. But when they are otherwise one cannot form a good opinion of him, for the prime error which he made was in choosing them.

NICCOLO MACHIAVELLI, THE PRINCE 103 (W.K. Marriott trans.,
Borders Classics 2006) (1532).

The words of Machiavelli, a government servant who, following a regime change in
his city, found himself placed on the rack because the new administration suspected he
supported the outgoing administration, seem apt to the present occasion, more than a half of
a millennium after they were written: is the populace’s faith in a public official often
determined by the successes and failures of those who formulate and implement policy on
behalf of the official? Springing from the 2002 election of Jonathan G. Newell to the office
of State’s Attorney for Caroline County, Maryland, the present case bears on the rub which
occurs when government employees, after throwing their support behind an incumbent
public official who ultimately is ousted by the electorate, seek to retain their positions under
the new administration. We here consider what has changed since Machiavelli’s time.

Deborah Jeon, the legal director of the ACLU of Maryland, which helped bring the suit, said in a news release that "over the last 40 years, the courts and the Maryland legislature have placed essential checks on the government¹s ability to stifle its employees¹ political expression. The Court of Appeals recognizes that what passed muster with public servants in Machiavelli¹s day is a world apart from the way Marylanders want their government to treat employees today."

Posted by Andy Green at 10:09 AM | | Comments (1)
        

Comments

The Court of Appeals actually cite Machiavelli's, The Prince, as rationale explanation for why folks campaigning for their boss should not be held liable? Seriously. Can any folks imagine a White House with Barack Obama and Karl Rove? But back to this Prince citing... next up, Gov. O'Malley, best to be feared and loved? Maybe we need to lower the maximum age for the Court of Appeals. Machiavelli is hardly a legal scholar. And his philosophy, while interesting, has a little more root in monarchy than in democracy.

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Annie Linskey covers state politics and government for The Baltimore Sun. Previously, as a City Hall reporter, she wrote about the corruption trial of Mayor Sheila Dixon and kept a close eye on city spending. Originally from Connecticut, Annie has also lived in Phnom Penh, Cambodia, where she reported on war crimes tribunals and landmines. She lives in Canton.

John Fritze has covered politics and government at the local, state and federal levels for more than a decade and is now The Baltimore Sun’s Washington correspondent. He previously wrote about Congress for USA TODAY, where he led coverage of the health care overhaul debate and the 2010 election. A native of Albany, N.Y., he currently lives in Montgomery County.

Julie Scharper covers City Hall and Baltimore politics. A native of Baltimore County, she graduated from The Johns Hopkins University in 2001 and spent two years teaching in Honduras before joining The Baltimore Sun. She has followed the Amish community of Nickel Mines, Pa., in the year after a schoolhouse massacre, reported on courts and crime in Anne Arundel County, and chronicled the unique personalities and places of Baltimore City and its surrounding counties.
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