Hunt v. County of Orange

Summarized by:

  • Court: 9th Circuit Court of Appeals Archives
  • Area(s) of Law: First Amendment
  • Date Filed: 02-13-2012
  • Case #: 10-55163
  • Judge(s)/Court Below: Circuit Judge Wardlaw for the Court; District Judge J. Mahan; Circuit Judge E. Leavy partially concurring and partially dissenting
  • Full Text Opinion

Demotion and placing an inferior officer on administrative leave, because the officer campaigned against and alleged corruption against the superior officer is not constitutional. However, the superior officer may have qualified immunity if they reasonably but mistakenly believe political loyalty was required by the inferior officer.

Orange County Sheriff-Coroner, Michael Carona was elected for a third time to his position, after much scandal. The day after Carona's election, he placed William Hunt, a former lieutenant officer with the Orange County Sheriff's Department on Administrative leave, and then demoted Hunt. Hunt had entered the race and campaigned against Carona, alleging Carona's corruption through public statements, radio addresses, press releases, and campaign literature. Hunt filed this suit under 42 U.S.C. § 1983, claiming that his demotion and required administrative leave were retribution for exercising his First Amendment rights. The district court found that Hunt did fall within the policymaker exception, and therefore could have been permissibly terminated for making incriminating statements in his campaign speech. The Ninth Circuit disagreed with the district court's reasoning, but not its conclusion. The Court found that the government has the burden to establish an interest at stake in which to validate the establishment of the policymaker justification. The government did not prove this burden with the showing of a vital interest that would be protected through Hunt's dismissal. In agreement with the district court, the Ninth Circuit held that "although Carona's demotion of Hunt in retaliation for campaign speech violated the First Amendment, Carona is entitled to qualified immunity." The Court also held that a person in Carona's position could have "reasonably but mistakenly" believed that political loyalty was required by a person in Hunt's position when Hunt ran against Carona. AFFIRMED.

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