United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers

PETITIONER: United States Civil Service Commission
RESPONDENT: National Association of Letter Carriers
LOCATION: Board of Education, School District No. 1

DOCKET NO.: 72-634
DECIDED BY: Burger Court (1972-1975)

CITATION: 413 US 548 (1973)
ARGUED: Mar 26, 1973
DECIDED: Jun 25, 1973

Erwin N. Griswold - for appellants
Thomas C. Matthews, Jr. - for appellees

Facts of the case


Media for United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 1973 (Part 2) in United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers

Audio Transcription for Oral Argument - March 26, 1973 (Part 1) in United States Civil Service Commission v. National Association of Letter Carriers

Warren E. Burger:

We'll hear arguments next in 72-634, United States Civil Service Commission against the National Association.

Mr. Solicitor General.


May it please the Court.

This case is here on a direct appeal from a decision of a three-judge District Court in the United States -- in the District of -- for the District of Columbia.

A majority of that court has held unconstitutional the basic provision of the Hatch Act, enacted by Congress nearly 34 years ago and held to be constitutional by this Court in its decision in United States against Mitchell in 330 U.S.decided in 1947.

The present form of the statute as it now appears in the United States Code, appears in the opening portion of the Government's main brief of pages 2 and 3.

In some ways, I hesitate to put those pages before the Court, because I think that the statute as it now appears in the Code is somewhat misleading in the light of its legislative history, and I will develop that legislative history in my argument.

But in order to get the setting of the case, I call attention to the statute as it now appears in the United States Code, it forbids two sorts of activities in these terms.

This is about the middle of page 2.

An employee in an executive agency or an individual employed by the government of the District of Columbia may not one, use his official authority or influence for the purpose of interfering with or effecting the result of an election or two, take an active part in political management or political campaigns.

Now, it is the second which is primarily involved in this case, and I would then call attention to further provisions in the statute on page 3.

Well, before I turn to page 3, let me go ahead with the -- with the following portion on page 2, immediately following what I have just said.

For the purpose of this subsection, the phrase "An active part in political management or in political campaign" means those acts of political management or political campaigning which were prohibited on the part of employees in the competitive service before July 19, 1940 by determinations of the Civil Service Commission under the rules prescribed by the President.

The further portions of the statute on page 3 contained qualifications and limitations, as such, for example, as it does not apply to a nonpartisan election and there are provisions to the effect that an employee retains the right to vote as he chooses and to express his opinion on political subjects and candidates.

The plaintiffs in this case in the court below are a federal employees' postal union, certain individual federal employees who assert that they want to do various things or have done certain things and fear prosecution and local Democratic and Republican Committees.

The suit was brought as a class action and sought a declaration that the act is unconstitutional and an injunction against its enforcement.

This was granted by the District Court in an opinion by Judge Gesell with Circuit Judge MacKinnon dissenting.

The majority accepted the appropriateness of the governmental objectives of the Hatch Act, but felt that the statute was defective in the way it sought to reach this objective.

In particular, the Court focused on the portion of the statute which referred to the determinations of the Civil Service Commission made prior to the date that provision was enacted.

That is July 19, 1940.

The Court held that this definition required federal employees to consider as a guide to their political conduct.

The entire body of pre-1940 administrative rulings, which the Court said, and I quote, "were rigidly incorporated into the Act."

Now, we would suggest that that was a wooden and indeed a perverse construction of the Act.

The Court felt that these rulings often proscribe constitutionally permissible conduct and were inconsistent with each other and with language in the Hatch Act itself.

The Court further concluded that no constitutionally acceptable mechanism was provided for reconciling the inconsistencies, and it rejected the administrative construction placed on the statute by the Commission's decisions and regulations holding that Congress conferred no power on the Commission to clarify or define the statutory prohibition.

On this basis, the Court concluded that the statute was both overly broad and impermissibly vague with the consequence that it had a chilling effect thus, bringing all three of the phrases which always come into these cases, which was not permissible under the First Amendment.

The majority recognized that this Court had upheld the statute in the Mitchell case.

It said, however, that the Court had left open the question raised by the incorporation by reference provision of the statute.

And it held that the Mitchell decision was "inconsistent with subsequent decisions delineating First Amendment freedoms" and these decisions it said, coupled with changes in the size and complexity of the public service, placed Mitchell among other decisions outmoded by passage of time.

Judge MacKinnon in dissent concluded that the statutory reference, the Civil Service Commission decisions did not incorporate all pre-1940 decisions but only those not inconsistent with the other provisions of the Act and with evolving concepts of First Amendment rights.