In Georgia, Deputy Sheriffs Can Be Fired For Political Reasons

Terri Ezell began working in the Muscogee County, Georgia Sheriff’s Office in 1983 as a correctional officer in the county jail. She was promoted to the position of deputy sheriff in 1985 and continued to climb in rank thereafter. In 2000, she became the first woman to have obtained the rank of major, and later rose to the position of commander, overseeing the jail and 250 employees.

In 2008, John Darr ran for election against the incumbent sheriff. During the election season, Ms. Ezell showed political support for the Sheriff in a number of ways. She put a sign supporting the incumbent in her yard, attended his campaign’s kick-off event, spent time at his campaign headquarters, and attended his public debates. She also contributed monetarily to the campaign.

Darr won the election, and promptly began reorganizing the Sheriff’s Office. Within a month, he had replaced not just Ezell but also the rest of the command staff. He fired one major, transferred another to a job that had no responsibilities, and transferred Ezell to the Recorder’s Court, where she would supervise only about 12 employees, would fill a post previously occupied by a sergeant, and where she would no longer have access to her police radio. Later, Darr transferred the Recorder’s Court out of the Sheriff’s Office to the office of the City Manager, ordering Ezell to stop wearing her uniform.

Ezell sued, claiming her First Amendment free speech rights were violated by her transfer. The federal Eleventh Circuit Court of Appeals disagreed, and dismissed Ezell’s lawsuit.

The Court noted that “the First Amendment protects public employees from adverse employment actions based on political patronage, but only if political loyalty is an inappropriate requirement for the effectiveness of a given employee’s position, as that position is defined by state and local law. In its best formulation, Ezell’s argument is straightforward: patronage cannot be necessary to the effectiveness of the County’s Sheriff’s deputies because of the County’s civil service system, which binds the Sheriff’s Office with the force of state and local law, prohibits employment decisions based on political patronage.”

The Court acknowledged that Ezell’s argument was “intuitively appealing,” but rejected it. The Court observed that “once and again, we have concluded that political loyalty is an appropriate requirement for the job of deputy sheriff because of the closeness and cooperation required between sheriffs and their deputies in fulfilling overlapping duties. The County’s civil service system has no impact on this analysis because our precedent compels us to take a categorical approach to the question that is sensitive only to how state and local law define the duties of a deputy sheriff.

“Our task is to review Georgia law to determine if a deputy sheriff has the same powers and duties as the sheriff and is thus the alter ego of the sheriff. This is plainly the case here. A deputy sheriff is an agent of the sheriff and in effecting the proper discharge of his duties is empowered with the same duties and powers. This conclusion ends the inquiry. To the extent Ezell requests a factual determination whether political loyalty is an appropriate requirement in the CCG (Columbus Consolidated Government) Sheriff’s Office, that request is foreclosed. To the extent Ezell argues that the civil service system has modified the legal relationship between the sheriff and his deputies, that argument also misses the mark – even if true – because she cannot show how the civil service system modified the duties of a sheriff’s deputy.”

Ezell v. Wynn, 802 F.3d 1217 (11th Cir. 2015).