- Associated Press - Monday, December 7, 2015

RALEIGH, N.C. (AP) - North Carolina’s Supreme Court on Monday began grappling with whether county sheriffs can fire deputies who don’t donate money for their election campaigns.

The court heard from attorneys arguing over lawsuits brought by four ex-employees fired by former Mecklenburg County Sheriff Chipp Bailey after his 2010 victory. The three deputies and one jail counselor said it was because they refused to donate to his campaign.

Justices quizzed Bailey’s lawyer about whether the oath deputies take to uphold the law fairly and impartially also requires pledging financial support for their boss. Sheriffs expect personal loyalty because they’re held responsible for what their deputies do or don’t do, said Sean Perrin, an attorney for Bailey and an insurance company.

“When you take an oath of office to uphold your duties, you need to be loyal to the person whose duties you’re following, i.e. the sheriff,” Perrin said.

“Are you saying that the political donation has a bearing in how a sheriff’s deputy does his job?” Justice Robin Hudson asked, looking over a courtroom filled by more than half of the state’s 100 county sheriffs.

“It certainly might,” Perrin said.

Sheriffs can fire deputies and other employees for insubordination, misconduct, poor job performance or other reasons, but not for refusing to help finance the boss’s campaign, said Harvey Kennedy, an attorney representing fired employees Ivan McLaughlin, Timothy Stanley, Justin Lloyd and Terri Young.

“You can’t take the position that if they don’t give you a donation they’re disloyal,” Kennedy told the justices. “Political coercion cannot be justified. That is a form of political corruption.”

Bailey, a Democrat, ran 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.

While the office of sheriff is unique as the only county office created by the state constitution, they and all of their employees are paid by county taxpayers. County officials set the number of paid employees, not the sheriff. That means justices should make clear deputies have the same job protections as other county workers when they exercise their free speech or association rights, Kennedy said.

The source of the money doesn’t make the office a county agency since no one disputes that only the sheriff decides how to conduct criminal investigations, provide jail and courthouse security, treat sex offenders or issue handgun permits, Perrin said. Nor does any other county official have authority to hire, fire, supervise or control any deputy, he said.

“Without that, it can’t be a county department or program,” Perrin said.

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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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