Divided federal appeals panel reinstates ex-jailer’s First Amendment suit

Wednesday, June 7, 2000

A former jailer in North Carolina fired for refusing to politically support her boss has had her First Amendment claim reinstated by a federal appeals court panel.

Kathy Knight, who was hired as a jailer by Rockingham County Sheriff C.D. Vernon in 1989, was fired in 1994, in part because Vernon believed Knight and her husband were supporting his political opponent in the then-upcoming sheriff’s election.

Knight alleged that Vernon told her: “When it comes time to vote, make sure you know who signs your check.” According to the lawsuit, the sheriff also told Knight that she should attend every one of his campaign functions and put up his posters.

After her discharge, Knight sued Vernon and the county, claiming her constitutional rights had been violated. Among her claims, Knight asserted that Vernon had violated her First Amendment political-affiliation rights.

In its 1976 decision Elrod v. Burns, the U.S. Supreme Court established that certain public employees in policymaking positions may be dismissed on the basis of their political affiliations without violating the First Amendment.

Knight contended that as jailer she was not in a policymaking position in which political party affiliation is a requirement for government employment. Vernon countered that the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals had ruled that a deputy sheriff could be fired for not politically supporting his or her boss.

In 1999, U.S. District Judge Frank W. Bullock Jr. dismissed Knight’s lawsuit, including her First Amendment claim against Vernon.

On appeal, a three-judge panel of the 4th Circuit reinstated Knight’s First Amendment claim by a 2-1 vote in Knight v. Vernon.

“The responsibilities of a jailer, such as Ms. Knight, are routine and limited in comparison to those of a deputy sheriff, who may be fired for his political affiliation,” the majority wrote in its June 2 opinion.

“She was not a confidant of the sheriff, and she did not advise him on policy matters,” the majority wrote.

The panel majority concluded: “Ms. Knight’s political allegiance to Sheriff Vernon was not an appropriate requirement for the performance of her job as jailer. The First Amendment therefore protects her from discharge for failing to support Sheriff Vernon in the primary.”

Judge H. Emory Widener Jr. dissented, saying he did not agree with the “technical distinctions between the position of detention officer and deputy sheriff.”

“A detention officer may not necessarily be a confidant of the sheriff himself, but she may be privy to confidential information, and the detention officer does implement the sheriff’s policy with respect to the jail and to inmate treatment,” Widener wrote.

James Morgan, the sheriff’s attorney, declined to comment on the decision. Calls to Knight’s attorney were not returned.