- Associated Press - Saturday, December 5, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - A trio of lawsuits is challenging the long-standing ability of North Carolina sheriffs to fire their deputies at will - a practice critics say allows some to maintain personal political fiefdoms where paychecks and patronage are connected.

North Carolina’s Supreme Court was scheduled to hear Monday from attorneys for four deputies who sued after they were fired by Mecklenburg County Sheriff Daniel “Chipp” Bailey for, they said, refusing to donate to his 2010 re-election campaign.

The question for the court is whether deputies on the county payroll can be fired by a sheriff who feels they’ve shown insufficient loyalty.

“It’s preposterous to think that political affiliation is the appropriate criteria for a deputy who’s supposed to enforce the law fairly and impartially,” said William Simpson, an attorney for the trial lawyer’s group North Carolina Advocates for Justice who urged the court to reject Bailey’s arguments.

The cases revolve around the unique role of sheriffs as the only local government officials specifically required by the state Constitution, though their duties aren’t outlined there. Sheriffs enforce criminal laws within county borders, execute warrants to appear in court and run local jails. The Constitution requires they be elected every four years and requires only that they be free of any felony convictions.

Courts have ruled previously that the unique role of sheriffs means that though they are paid by county taxpayers, deputies aren’t county employees and don’t enjoy the same protections against job retaliation when they exercise their free-speech, association or political rights.

The three cases before the Supreme Court were brought by former deputies Ivan McLaughlin, Timothy Stanley, Justin Lloyd and Terri Young. McLaughlin and Young were Republicans.

Bailey, a Democrat, was running his first campaign for sheriff in 2010 after being appointed to the role in 2008. He didn’t run again last year and ended 20 years with the sheriff’s office and more than 40 years in county employment.

About 1½ years before the election, Bailey got the addresses of all 1,350 employees of his department and sent each a letter on his campaign’s letterhead asking for contributions. Bailey’s attorneys said the sheriff didn’t keep track of who donated or volunteered to work on his campaign. Instead, Bailey’s lieutenants prodded employees to show support, the fired deputies said.

But none of that matters, an attorney for Bailey and an insurance company argued in court filings. State law protecting county workers from political coercion doesn’t apply to a sheriff’s employees because they’re not county employees and don’t work for a county department, attorney Sean Perrin wrote.

Furthermore, “North Carolina common law, state constitutional law and federal constitutional law have all held that a sheriff’s deputy like Young may be terminated for political reasons,” Perrin wrote.

The ability to coerce deputies into donations is a recipe for political corruption, Harold Kennedy III, a lawyer for the fired deputies, wrote in court documents.

All four deputies stayed neutral in the 2010 sheriff’s election, Kennedy wrote, but high-ranking department officers “were involved in coercing Plaintiffs to give Sheriff Bailey campaign contributions. When they refused to give the money, they were fired.”

The cases aren’t about political purity but employing a staff that responds to the sheriff’s priorities and getting rid of workers who won’t, said Eddie Caldwell of the North Carolina Sheriffs’ Association. Deputies, like the vast majority of North Carolina workers, are at-will employees, meaning they can be fired based on their performance and the needs of the organization, he said in an interview.

“The employer has a mission to carry out. If the sheriff of Mecklenburg County comes in and fires all 1,300 employees tomorrow, who’s going to carry out the mission?” said Caldwell, who is urging the justices to keep current conditions. “The public is then going to throw the sheriff out of office. And so the sheriff is held accountable if he or she makes a foolish decision.”

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Follow Emery P. Dalesio at http://twitter.com/emerydalesio. His work can be found at http://bigstory.ap.org/content/emery-p-dalesio

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