Seven Arlington deputies filed separate suits yesterday in federal court in Alexandria against Sheriff James A. Gondles Jr. and two other county employees, claiming the sheriff overstepped his authority when he demoted them for publicly supporting his opponent in last fall's election.

The lawsuits, which say the deputies are Arlington employees protected by county employment rules, also claim that Gondles violated their free speech rights. It says the demotions have caused them to be under duress and "severe emotional distress."

The suit asks the court to reinstate the deputies, who are working as correctional officers, the department's lowest position, and to award "appropriate" monetary damages.

Four of the deputies dropped a pending case in the federal court against the sheriff. Yesterday, along with the three additional deputies, they filed new claims.

Gondles said the lawsuits have not affected his management abilities, but added, "It couldn't be a worse time." He would not comment further on the latest round of suits. He has said in the past that he has done nothing improper.

"There comes a point now when the preoccupation with the lawsuits is very, very distracting to the proper functioning of the office," said Gondles' attorney, William D. Dolan. "It is beyond doubt that these employees' lawsuits have a very detrimental effect on the office."

Chief deputy Thomas Faust, also named in the suits, could not be reached for comment. Arlington Director of Personnel Alan Christenson, also named, said he had not seen the suits so he could not comment on it.

In December, Gondles, a Democrat, gave nine of 21 deputies who signed statements criticizing him during the reelection campaign the choice of being fired or of being demoted without loss of pay. He said the nine held "positions of confidence" or management-level jobs, and that he could no longer trust them to do their jobs effectively.

Victor Glasberg, the attorney for the deputies filing the suits yesterday, said Gondles could not, "under the guise of acting as a sheriff, play fast and loose with their status as Arlington employees . . . . You cannot subordinate the rights they have as permanent {county} employees."

Dolan and county attorney Charles Flinn said the deputies are solely employees of the sheriff's department, and are subject to the rules under which constitutional officers, such as the sheriff, are governed.

As an elected constitutional officer, Gondles has much broader powers of hiring and firing than do elected members of the county board, for instance.