Court nixes rule barring U.S. court workers’ political speech

Signage is seen at the entrance of the United States Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit in Washington, D.C., U.S. REUTERS/Andrew Kelly

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

  • A 2018 rule banned off-duty partisan political activities
  • Divided appeals panel says court agency’s concerns speculative

(Reuters) – A Trump-era policy barring employees of the federal court system from attending campaign events, giving money to candidates or engaging in other off-duty partisan political activities violated their free-speech rights, a divided U.S. appeals court said on Tuesday.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in a 2-1 decision said claims by the Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts, the judiciary’s administrative agency, that political activity by its 1,100 employees would undermine the court system’s integrity were speculative and did not justify broad restrictions on political speech.

“The government cannot condition public employment on the complete surrender of a citizen’s First Amendment rights,” Circuit Judge Justin Walker wrote.

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

The U.S. Department of Justice, which represents the Administrative Office, did not immediately respond to a request for comment. Neither did the American Civil Liberties Union, which represents two employees of the agency who sued over the policy.

The Administrative Office, which performs administrative and policy-related functions but is not involved in handling specific cases, had imposed new restrictions in 2018 on partisan activities its employees could undertake.

The rule banned donating to candidates, displaying campaign bumper stickers or yard signs, attending fundraisers or posting about political candidates on social media. The restrictions mirrored ones that have long been in place for judicial employees who work in federal courthouses.

But after two employees, Lisa Guffey and Christine Smith, sued in 2018, U.S. District Judge Christopher Cooper in Washington, D.C., concluded in 2020 that the Administrative Office’s ban on activities protected under the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution was not justified.

The government appealed and the D.C. Circuit on Tuesday affirmed. The agency’s employees are far removed from individual court cases, and the Administrative Office could not show that speculative concerns about potential accusations of partisan bias trumped workers’ free-speech rights, Walker wrote, joined by Circuit Judge Harry Edwards.

In dissent, Circuit Judge Karen Henderson said her colleagues had not given enough deference to the Administrative Office’s legitimate attempt to safeguard faith in the court system.

“The Constitution demands that the apolitical essence of the Judiciary and all members of its workforce — wherever sited — remain uncompromised,” Henderson wrote.

The case is Guffey v. Mauskopf, U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit, No. 20-5183.

For Guffey: Scott Michelman of the ACLU Foundation of the District of Columbia

For the defendants: Weili Shaw of the U.S. Department of Justice

Read more:

U.S. court agency struggles to revive bar on employee political activities

D.C. judge: U.S. courts’ administrative agency can’t bar employees’ political speech

Register now for FREE unlimited access to Reuters.com

Our Standards: The Thomson Reuters Trust Principles.

https://www.reuters.com/legal/government/court-nixes-rule-barring-us-court-workers-political-speech-2022-08-16/