Under the Elrod-Branti exception to First Amendment protection, the district court properly dismissed a Loudoun County deputy sheriff’s claims against the sheriff, who declined to reappoint the deputy for supporting the sheriff’s political opponent.
The court’s prior precedent provides that the sheriff has a duty to carry out the policies the voters approved in the election. The complaint indicates that the plaintiff’s duties and responsibilities as a sworn deputy sheriff involved carrying out the sheriff’s policies and priorities.
A sworn deputy sheriff like the plaintiff has a special role in carrying out the law enforcement policies, goals, and priorities on which the sheriff campaigned and prevailed. He was entitled to carry out the policies on which he ran and won with deputies who didn’t oppose his re-election.
The complaint here illustrates the rationale behind the Elrod-Branti exception. An entire section reads as a political attack ad against the sheriff, attacking his character by accusing him of questionable fund raising, expenditures, and hiring practices; abusive and malicious treatment of employees; and unprofessional conduct. Requiring a sheriff to employ deputies who have displayed the level of hostility portrayed in this complaint could reasonably impede a sheriff’s obligation to his electorate to implement the platform on which he campaigned. This does not mean that law enforcement responsibilities are or should be handled in a political manner. The court’s decision is based on the reality that sheriffs do and should carry out the policies, goals, and priorities on which they ran.
In addition, Virginia law concerning the roles of sheriffs and their deputies confirms that deputies performing law enforcement functions have a policymaking role. In Virginia, a sheriff may appoint deputies to “discharge any of the official duties of their principal during his continuance in office,” and “any such deputy may be removed from office by his principal.” A sheriff in Virginia is also civilly and criminally liable for his deputy’s acts.
Accordingly, the sheriff’s decision not to re-appoint the deputy didn’t violate the deputy’s First Amendment right to freedom of political association, or to freedom of speech under the Pickering-Connick doctrine.
Affirmed 2-1. Judge King dissented.