IF IT WERE POSSIBLE to resurrect them, the political leaders who could be lined up to denounce what the Supreme Court did on Monday would be an awesome group. There would be Boss Tweed and President Lincoln, Mayor Daley and President Jackson, Frank Hague and Thomas Jefferson. All of them would be appalled by the idea, now seemingly endorsed by the court, that the "spoils system" is unconstitutional.
Those leaders, and hundreds more, used their power to hire and fire government employees to build political parties and machines, to create bureaucracies loyal to their views on controversial issues and, in the early days, to oust the gentry from plush jobs they believed ordinary men could do just as well.
If the court hasn't put a stop to thaat sort of thing, it has come close. The justices ruled, 6 to 3, that the new public defender in Rockland County, N.Y., a Democrat, could not fire two of his assistants solely because they were Republicans. That decision flowed directly from what the court did three years ago when it prevented the Democratic sheriff of Cook County, Ill., (of all places) from firing some of his assistants, which he had wanted to do because they were not Democrats and could not win the support of Democratic leaders.
There was certain inevitability to these decisions. They followed, somewhat logically, previous cases in which the court had held that university professors, for instance, could not be fired for their political beliefs. But there are distinctions that could have been drawn -- there is a difference between teaching school and serving subpoenas or defending criminals -- and this is one time the court should have drawn them. The history of this country runs counter to the idea that non-civil servants should be "above" the operation of politics.
Fortunately -- because this is a constitutional decision not subject to a congressional override -- the justices have left themselves some room. Their way of determining which government employees now have a right not to be fired solely on political grounds is quite uncertain.The test is whether the hiring authority can demonstrate that party affiliation is an approporiate requirement for effective performance of the office. Such a definition ensures much more litigation and a chance that the court will limit sharply the scope of this new-found right.