RALEIGH, N.C. — The state Supreme Court on Friday upheld the firings of sheriff’s deputies who declined to donate to their boss’s political campaign, ruling that they aren’t covered by a state law protecting county workers from political coercion.
The justices agreed with a lower court’s ruling that deputies work directly for the sheriff and do not have the same protections as county government workers when it comes to political activity.
Three deputies and a jail counselor had taken former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Daniel Bailey to court, saying they were fired because they declined a request to contribute to his successful 2010 campaign.
The high court noted that county sheriffs hold an elected office established by the state Constitution, and they’re recognized in state law as having sole authority over how their offices are run. Though they receive county funds, their offices are considered distinct from county government.
“In addition, the sheriff has singular authority over his or her deputies and employees and is responsible for their actions,” the Supreme Court opinion said, adding “a deputy sheriff or employee of a sheriff’s office is not a county employee.”
The court also rejected the deputies’ arguments that their free-speech rights were violated, noting that “mutual confidence and loyalty between a sheriff and a deputy are crucial in accomplishing the sheriff’s policies and duties” as an elected law enforcement official.
Bailey, a Democrat, ran his first campaign for sheriff in 2010 after being appointed to the role in 2008. He didn’t run again in 2014, ending 20 years with the sheriff’s office.
About 1½ years before the election, Bailey obtained the addresses of all 1,350 employees of his department and sent each a letter on his campaign’s letterhead asking for contributions.
The three deputies and jail counselor stayed neutral in the 2010 sheriff’s election, one of their lawyers has said, but high-ranking department officers were involved in coercing contributions. The former employees say they were fired because they refused to give money.
Harvey Kennedy, a lawyer for the plaintiffs, released a statement saying the ruling could allow other sheriffs to fire deputies over political affiliations or contributions.
He said his clients “never expected their careers to end because they refused to make political contributions to the Sheriff’s campaign.”
Eddie Caldwell, executive vice president and general counsel for the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association, applauded the court’s decision.
“These court decisions ensure that when the people of a county elect a sheriff, the sheriff has a right to employ deputies that will be loyal to that sheriff and will carry out the mandate of the citizens,” he said.