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Supreme Court bypasses political-patronage question

By The Associated Press

05.21.02

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WASHINGTON — A Pennsylvania politician has lost a bid to have the Supreme Court use her case to revisit the subject of political patronage.

The court refused yesterday to review an appeal from a county commissioner who fired her secretary after a disagreement over the secretary's off-duty political work.

An appeals court said a jury should decide if the secretary was a high-level adviser and did not have job security.

In a series of cases more than 20 years ago, the high court significantly weakened political patronage, sometimes called the "spoils system." Justices prohibited government employers from firing anyone solely because of their political affiliation unless party loyalty is a requirement for effective performance.

Beaver County Commissioner Bea Schulte contends that the fired assistant held a political appointment in which party loyalty was required.

Delores Armour worked on Schulte's campaign, and when Schulte was elected she hired Armour in 1996. Armour was fired in 1999 after she gave campaign advice to a judicial candidate. Schulte supported another candidate for the judgeship and complained to Armour, court records show.

A federal judge initially dismissed Armour's lawsuit against the county and Schulte over the firing, finding that they had a political agreement for the job.

A split three-judge panel of the Philadelphia-based 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said that there was not enough information to say for sure what category Armour's job fell in. The court said a jury should decide that.

With the Supreme Court's refusal to intervene, the case, Beaver County, Pennsylvania v. Armour, goes back for a jury to consider the issue.

The commissioner's attorney, Vicki Beatty, said courts around the country have handled political firing cases differently and needed Supreme Court direction.

"The alternative is to continue to develop a patchwork of decisions that provide no direction to the courts charged with applying the law or the government employers charged with following the law," Beatty wrote in a filing.

Armour's lawyer, Samuel J. Cordes, said courts were not widely split on the subject.

Related

2001-2002 Supreme Court term coverage
Analysis and other coverage of the 2001-2002 U.S. Supreme Court term.  11.01.01

Federal appeals panel reinstates political patronage suit
Judges rule 2-1 that nature of Ohio investigator's job is 'non-political.'  06.26.00

Federal appeals panel rejects fired attorney's free-association claim
Judges rule that assistant attorney general was 'policymaking' employee entitled to no First Amendment protection.  05.11.00

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