Rankin v. McPherson

LOCATION: Highway 80, Solano County, California

DOCKET NO.: 85-2068
DECIDED BY: Rehnquist Court (1986-1987)
LOWER COURT: United States Court of Appeals for the Fifth Circuit

CITATION: 483 US 378 (1987)
ARGUED: Mar 23, 1987
DECIDED: Jun 24, 1987

Billy E. Lee - Argued the cause for the petitioners
Glen D. Nager - Argued the cause pro hac vice for the United States as amicus curiae urging reversal
Lloyd Cutler - for respondent
Lloyd N. Cutler - Argued the cause for the respondent

Facts of the case

Ardith McPherson was a clerical employee in the Harris County, Texas constable's office. After hearing on the office radio that there had been an attempt to assassinate President Ronald Reagan, McPherson, who thought she was alone with one other office worker, stated "if they go for him again, I hope they get him." Another co-worker overheard the comment and reported it to the Constable, Walter H. Rankin. Rankin subsequently fired McPherson.


Did the Constable's action infringe upon McPherson's freedom of speech guaranteed by the First Amendment?

Media for Rankin v. McPherson

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 23, 1987 in Rankin v. McPherson

William H. Rehnquist:

We will hear this argument in Case No. 85-2085, Walter H. Rankin, Etc.

, et al., Petitioners.

v. Ardith McPherson.

Mr. Lee, you may begin whenever you're ready.

Billy E. Lee:

Mr. Chief Justice, may it please the Court, chronologically developing our case, on January 12, 1981, Constable Rankin, who represents one of the eight constable precincts in Harris County appointed a new deputy, Ardith McPherson.

It is county procedure for a new county employee to be on a 90-day probation period at which the employee and the employer may look each over to determine whether they wish to extend beyond 20 days and go into indeterminate employment there.

The employment period that began on January 12, 1981, would have ended on April 12, 1981.

We had a short circuit occur though in that occasion.

President Roosevelt... not... President Reagan was sworn in on January 20 of--


Either one.

Thank you.

--on January 20th of 1981.

And just a few blocks away from this courthouse now on March 30th of 1981, he was a victim of an assassination attempt.

That will be six years from next Monday, and this case goes on and on.

At the constables' office, business was going on as usual.

His new deputy, Ardith McPherson, had been assigned primarily in her initial period as a computer operator.

Let me explain one thing about our constables office.

Our downtown constable is Walter Rankin.

The other seven constables are scattered all over the county by population groupings there.

But they are not around the downtown courthouse complex, which has about five court buildings there that generate all of the court process, the majority of the court process that goes out to the other precincts for service.

The new system which we call JIMS... Justice Information Management System... all of the process throughout the county comes into Constable Rankin's office, and it is put onto computers which plays back in 16 justice of the peace courts scattered over the county, 8 constables offices scattered over the county, the district clerk's office and the county clerk's office both across the street from him, as well as juvenile information goes on these same computers there.

So that any officer, court or law enforcement who is wanting to know at any particular moment the status of service of process in any of these cases can punch it up on the computer and have the answer right there before him as to what attempts have been made on service, what service has been completed, what service has been rejected because of bad addresses.

Anyway, the information is readily available throughout the county, based upon the input by Constable Rankin's office in the first instance before he sends the process out to other officers.

Now, when Constable Rankin appointed Ardith McPherson his deputy, he did this under a statute in Texas that says that all of the constable's employees are deputies.

He is not authorized to employ clerks, people to answer the telephone, people to do the typing.

Everybody that he employs is a deputy constable.

Thurgood Marshall:

Is that also the man that sweeps the floor?

Billy E. Lee:

I did not hear you, sir.

Thurgood Marshall:

Does that also include the man that sweeps the floor in the constable's office?