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At issue: Are employees of a county sheriff’s department in the Tar Heel State county employees?
Should employees who work for an elected county sheriff be protected from firing if they don’t donate to the campaign of their boss?
In a ruling handed down on Friday, the North Carolina Supreme Court said no, upholding the terminations of three deputies and a jail counselor who alleged they were axed because they didn’t contribute to the 2010 campaign of their boss, Mecklenburg County Sheriff Daniel Bailey.
Before that 2010 election, Bailey, a Democrat who is now retired, had obtained a full listing of the 1,350 employees in the county sheriff’s department and sent campaign letters to each of them asking for donations.
Bailey’s attorneys said the sheriff didn’t keep track of who donated or volunteered to work on his campaign. But the fired deputies said Bailey’s lieutenants prodded employees to show support, and they should have been shielded from termination because the county funds the Sheriff’s Office. Bailey’s attorney and an insurance company argued that was irrelevant, and said the deputies were not protected from political coercion because they’re not county employees and don’t work for a county department.
In its ruling, the court agreed with Bailey:
In light of the distinct demarcation between county government and the office of the sheriff, we conclude that a sheriff’s office is not a program or department of a county and agree with the consistent holdings of the Court of Appeals that a deputy sheriff or employee of a sheriff’s office is not a county employee.
A lawyer for the plaintiffs, The Associated Press reported, said that the ruling opens the door to other county sheriffs to fire department deputies and other employees over their political affiliation.
Michael Grass is Executive Editor of Government Executive’s Route Fifty.