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FACTS: Petitioner, Jeffrey Heffernan, was a police officer for the City of Paterson, New Jersey. He alleges that his mother requested that he, on behalf of her, pick up a yard sign for the mayor’s principal opponent in the local mayoral election. While picking up this yard sign, Heffernan was observed by a fellow officer and was subsequently confronted by his supervisor regarding the yard sign. Heffernan told his supervisor that he was not politically involved, could not vote in the City of Paterson, and was picking up the yard sign on behalf of his mother. However, Heffernan’s office considered his activities to be “overt involvement in political activities” and Heffernan was demoted to a walking post.
PROCEDURAL HISTORY: The litigation began in 2006, when petitioner brought a § 1983 action against the City of Paterson, the mayor of Paterson, the Police Chief of Paterson, and the Police Director of Paterson in the United States District Court for the District of New Jersey alleging adverse actions against petitioner based on his off-duty conduct in complying with his mother’s request to obtain a yard sign for the mayor’s principal opponent in the local mayoral election, in violation of 42 U.S.C. § 1983 and petitioner’s fundamental First Amendment rights.
After the trial concluded in April 2009, the jury concluded that the mayor of Paterson and the Police Chief of Paterson had retaliated against the plaintiff due to his exercise of his First Amendment right to association, but exonerated the city of Paterson, who had filed and won a motion for summary judgment. The motion alleged that there was no evidence of Heffernan associating himself with the candidate at issue, which Heffernan himself admitted, causing there to be no evidence of a violation of free association. The jury found that the mayor of Paterson and the Police Chief of Paterson proximately caused the petitioner injury and awarded the petitioner compensatory damages in the amount of $75,000 and punitive damages in the amount of $30,000.
However, after the jury’s decision, the district court judge retroactively recused himself, claiming he had become aware of a conflict of interest. The case was reassigned and set for retrial. On retrial, the district court judge granted summary judgment to defendants as to the First Amendment free speech claim. The petitioner appealed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit initially reversed and remanded the district court’s ruling, holding that the successor judge’s denial of officer’s request for permission to file an opposition to defendants’ summary judgment motion was an abuse of discretion and that the successor judge should have addressed the free association claim
On remand, the district court held that the petitioner did not engage in actual First Amendment speech, the petitioner’s conduct could not be considered expressive, perceived First Amendment speech or expression could not form basis of retaliation claim, the petitioner did not have claim for aiding and abetting speech, freedom of association claim was properly in front of the court, and that claim failed on the merits, absent retaliation in response to actual or perceived political affiliation. The petitioner once again appealed.
The U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit affirmed the district court’s ruling, holding that its prior opinion did not preclude district court from considering city’s motion for summary judgment on remand, officer’s demotion did not violate Free Speech Clause, and officer’s demotion did not violate his right to free association
The United States Supreme Court granted certiorari on October 1, 2015.
ISSUE: Does the First Amendment prohibit the government from demoting a public employee based on a supervisor’s perception that the employee supports a political candidate?
ORAL ARGUMENTS: Oral arguments for this case were completed on January 19, 2016. During oral arguments, this case was described as “bizarre” multiple times, even once by Justice Antonin Scalia
Chief Justice John G. Roberts, Jr., echoed the holdings of the lower courts during the oral arguments by saying, “I’m not sure how he can say his freedom of speech has been abridged.” Justice Antonin Scalia further echoed the lower court’s holdings by saying, “Your client was neither speaking nor association. So how could he possibly have a cause of action under the First Amendment?”
However, Justice Elena Kagan expressed concern during the oral arguments through the use of a hypothetical. Her hypothetical supposed that every agnostic or uninterested government worker was fired when their bosses made it their mission to replace them with politically active workers who have views aligned with their own. She explained her concern to be that government workers might have no constitutional protection if their bosses decided to engage in this type of activity. Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg seemed to agree with Justice Kagan, claiming that it defied common sense to protect those who politically speak out from being demoted but not to protect those who do not actually politically speak out but are misconstrued as doing so.
DISCUSSION: In this Supreme Court case, the petitioner contends that the First Amendment not only grants individuals the right to speak freely but also prevents the government from trying to control people’s beliefs. In essence, the government should not be able to take adverse action against an employee for perceived association, regardless of whether or not that association actually occurred.
And, on the other side, the respondents are arguing that, “by definition, the government cannot ‘abridge’ a ‘right’ of an employee who does not even seek to exercise it.” Basically, they are saying that the government’s motivation in punishing petitioner is completely irrelevant since the petitioner admitted to holding the sign for his mother and that he was not explicitly exercising his own right to association.
The result of this case will be especially relevant for CWA due to the fact that its ruling will affect millions of government workers’ free-speech rights under the First Amendment. This type of case could potentially occur in future situations with direct relation to one of CWA’s seven core issues: Religious Liberty.