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A federal judge has struck down a Philadelphia ordinance passed in 1952 that prohibits all political contributions by uniformed employees of the fire department, finding it violated the firefighters’ First Amendment rights and that none of the city’s justifications for the law was valid. “The city has failed to offer a persuasive reason why uniformed fire fighters should not have the same rights as the civilians who work beside them,” U.S. District Judge Stewart Dalzell wrote in Philadelphia Fire Fighters’ Union Local 22 v. City of Philadelphia. If the ruling stands, it will clear the way for more than 2,400 firefighters to begin making political contributions of any sort, most significantly by contributing to FIREPAC, a political action committee formed by the firefighters’ union in 1987. Dalzell found that FIREPAC lacks significant financial support because it receives contributions only from retired Philadelphia firefighters and other non-uniformed personnel. “Local 22 would also collect voluntary contributions from its members and distribute them to FIREPAC, but it has refrained from doing so because of the ban. Lacking significant financial support, FIREPAC makes only small and sporadic contributions to further its political goals,” Dalzell wrote. The public suffers from the effects of the ban, Dalzell found, because the collective voice of the firefighters is silenced in the political arena. “Just as the public has an interest in the message that medical associations and bar associations disseminate about, say, health care reform, it also has an interest in the message disseminated by Fire Department employees about, say, fire hazards, prevention, and rescue,” Dalzell wrote. “When the city prohibits Fire Department employees from effectively communicating with the public, it shuts off a knowledgeable source on many important matters of societal concern.” The ruling is a victory for attorneys Ralph J. Teti and Richard G. Poulson of Willig Williams & Davidson, who argued that the city had no valid reasons for singling out uniformed firefighters while allowing other city employees to make whatever political contributions they wanted. Chief Deputy City Solicitor Shelley R. Smith argued that the ban on political contributions by uniformed fire department employees is justified because it avoids “real” threats that the city would otherwise face. Without the ban, Smith argued, the politicians who received the contributions would use their authority to improperly influence hiring, promotion and transfers within the fire department. As proof, Smith attached to her brief examples of letters sent by politicians and others to Fire Commissioner Harold Hairston requesting placement of job applicants. But Dalzell found that the political pressure had no effect on the fire department’s use of pure meritocracy. “Despite the politicians’ intercessions, Fire Commissioner Hairston relied on detailed protocols for making personnel decisions and declined to promise any special treatment for any of the applicants,” Dalzell wrote. “The city has brought to our attention no example of a successful attempt to circumvent the existing civil service rules governing personnel decisions.” Dalzell found that the letters proved instead that “politicians will attempt to influence personnel decisions even when they do not receive campaign contributions from applicants.” He also found that “politicians do not usually succeed in corrupting the Fire Department’s admirable commitment to a meritocratic personnel system.” As a result, Dalzell concluded that the city “has offered no evidence to suggest that freedom to give money to politicians would pollute or somehow impair the Fire Department meritocracy.” Smith also argued that the ban avoids compromising the integrity of fire code inspections, pointing to Hairston’s testimony that allowing political contributions by uniformed firefighters “may in some way influence the outcome of an inspection, which could be inappropriate.” Dalzell was unimpressed, saying “Hairston’s statement fails to explain how department employees making contributions could inappropriately influence the inspections.” The city’s argument, Dalzell said, “does not address the everyday reality that civilian L&I [Licensing and Inspection Department] employees, who are not subject to the anti-contribution rules, conduct fire inspections in conjunction with the uniformed Fire Department employees. There is nothing in this record that would support any notion that the only reason L&I employees are honest is because the Fire Department employees at their side are politically neutered.” Smith argued that the ban was justified by the U.S. Supreme Court’s 1976 decision in Buckley v. Valeo in which the justices upheld the Federal Election Campaign Act’s $1,000 limit on federal campaign contributions. The Buckley court, Smith said, described the cap as “only a marginal restriction upon the contributor’s ability to engage in free communication.” Dalzell disagreed, saying “this argument glosses over the inconvenient fact that in Buckley the Supreme Court recognized the important distinction between prohibiting contributions and limiting them.” Although a cap on the amount of political contributions entails only marginal restriction on an individual’s ability to express support for a candidate or cause, Dalzell found that “banning political contributions muzzles political voices.” Smith also pointed to the federal Hatch Act, which, she said, was passed to ensure impartial execution of the law; avoiding the appearance of corruption; preventing the government from becoming an invincible political machine; and fostering a civil service corps based on merit rather than patronage. But Dalzell found that the Hatch Act forbids government employees only from “open acts of partisan political activity” by “taking an active part in political management or in political campaigns.” As a result, Dalzell said, the federal law is no support for the city’s ban “on the private act of contributing money.” Dalzell found that the city “unquestionably has a legitimate interest in preserving public confidence in government,” but that it “has not shown how banning the voluntary political contributions of uniformed fire fighters advances that legitimate interest.” Plaintiffs lawyers argued that the ban also violates the equal protection rights of the uniformed firefighters because other government employees — federal, state and city — are free to make political contributions. “There is no rational reason to expect that the addition of 2,400 firefighters to the hundreds of thousands of employees who already have the right to make political contributions will impair public confidence in government,” Teti and Poulson wrote. Dalzell agreed, saying “when so many other public employees freely contribute to candidates and causes they support, we fail to see how the city can show that prohibiting uniformed Fire Department employees from making political contributions rationally relates to the preservation of public confidence in the city’s government.”

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