Political Patronage OK In North Carolina Sheriff’s Office

Terri Young was a deputy sheriff employed by Mecklenburg County, North Carolina. In June 2009, Sheriff Daniel Bailey sent a letter to approximately 1,350 of his employees, announcing his candidacy for reelection and stating that he would appreciate campaign contributions. Young did not contribute to Bailey’s reelection campaign or volunteer for his campaign. Bailey was reelected in November 2010, and a month later he fired Young.

Young sued the County and Bailey, alleging her termination amounted to political patronage and violated her free speech rights.

The North Carolina Court of Appeals rejected Young’s lawsuit. The Court acknowledged that “the First Amendment generally bars the firing of public employees solely for the reason that they were not affiliated with a particular political party or candidate, as such firings can impose restraints on freedoms of belief and association.” However, the Court cited two United States Supreme Court decisions for the proposition that a “narrow exception” exists to “give effect to the democratic process by allowing patronage dismissals of those public employees occupying policymaking positions.

“In North Carolina, the office of deputy sheriff is that of a policymaker, and deputy sheriffs are the alter ego of the sheriff generally. North Carolina deputy sheriffs may be lawfully terminated for political reasons under the exception to prohibited political terminations.

“Deputy sheriffs (1) implement the sheriff’s policies; (2) are likely part of the sheriff’s core group of advisors; (3) exercise significant discretion; (4) foster public confidence in law enforcement; (5) are expected to provide the sheriff with truthful and accurate information; and (6) are general agents of the sheriff, and the sheriff is civilly liable for the acts of his deputy. Young’s termination thus did not violate her right to free speech under the North Carolina Constitution.”

Young v. Bailey, 2015 WL 1788730 (N.C. App. 2015).

Note: Largely due to collective bargaining and civil service laws, political patronage is relatively rare except at the highest levels of government. In addition, most courts considering the issue have found that rank-and-file deputy sheriffs are not “policymakers” who can be fired for their lack of political support for the sheriff. Only a minority of states – most certainly including North Carolina – still allow such outright political patronage in most sheriff office jobs.