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County Official’s Claim Her Firing Was Political Retaliation Fails in Federal Court

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Connecting state and local government leaders

The 7th Circuit Court of Appeals says the financial resources director position falls under a special exception.

Claims by a former Illinois county budget official, who is a Democrat, that she faced unconstitutional political retaliation and discrimination when a Republican county board chairman fired her were rejected by a federal appeals court this week.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 7th Circuit affirmed a district court ruling in siding against the former Vermilion County staffer.

Nicole Bogart began her tenure as the county’s financial resources director in 2007 and held the post until January 2015, at which point she was fired by Michael Marron, a Republican who took over as chairman of the county board around that time.

The First Amendment generally blocks employment decisions based on political loyalty.

But this standard doesn’t apply to certain government jobs under what’s known as the Elrod-Branti exception, which the appeals court said applied here. The exception’s name refers to two Supreme Court decisions, Elrod v. Burns in 1976 and Branti v. Finkel in 1980.

In these cases, the Supreme Court held that public employers cannot condition employment on political affiliation, but also left an opening to do so in situations where political loyalty is a valid job qualification.

The appeals court decision, written by Judge Michael Y. Scudder, Jr., describes areas that the court focuses on as it considers the Elrod-Branti framework.

These include whether a job in entails substantial policy-making responsibility, meaningful discretion to implement the policy goals of elected officials, or a need to maintain confidentiality required for robust deliberations involving disagreements and political objectives.

With these criteria in mind, the court concluded that Bogart’s job fell under the exception.

“Budgeting decisions often are to municipal government what matters of foreign policy are at the national level,” the ruling says.

It goes on to note that the projects and programs that receive funding, the amounts they receive, and projected revenue needs are all significant issues at the county level.

“Board candidates run on how they plan to address such matters, and, once elected, municipal leaders need skilled and trusted confidants to help make and implement these difficult fiscal decisions,” the ruling adds. “Bogart’s position as Financial Resources Director was such a position. It was effectively a cabinet-level position in Vermilion County.”

“No more is required to fit within the Elrod-Branti exception,” the court concluded.

Bogart also brought a claim under the 14th Amendment’s Equal Protection Clause, which calls for states to treat people in the same way as others in similar conditions and circumstances.

The district court dismissed this claim as duplicative. The appeals court ruling says that because the claim mirrored the First Amendment argument that it would have failed for similar reasons.

Vermilion County is located about 100 miles south of Chicago, on the Indiana border. The county has about 77,900 residents.

Both the county and Marron, the board chairman who fired Bogart, were named as defendants in the case. Marron now serves in the Illinois General Assembly.

Bill Lucia is a Senior Reporter for Government Executive's Route Fifty and is based in Washington, D.C.

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