Last week, the D.C. government fired 10 employees and gave move-in-or-be-fired notices to seven others who resisted the requirement that new city workers live in Washington.
Residency policies have caused friction between local governments and civil servants for over a generation. The roots of this conflict extend from crass political maneuvering for control over patronage to basic constitutional rights.
Arguments in favor of requiring city residency as a term and condition of employment include:
The "public coffer" issue -- the city has an interest in promoting the recirculation within the city's economy of salaries paid to civil servants.
"Privilege versus right" -- public employment is not a right but a privilege for the city to bestow.
"Emergency" or "proximity" -- the city has a valid interest in quick availability of police and firefighters in emergencies.
"Visibility" -- residence promotes police-community relations and mediates misunderstanding and intolerence; to know and identify the problems of the community requires a civil servant to live among its inhabitants, shop in its stores, send children to its schools and use its services.
Opposition to residency requirements arises from constitutional protections: the right to travel, the right to live where one chooses and the right to equal protection under the law (i.e., the class of people who live outside the residential boundaries have the same constitutional protections as that class of people who live within the boundaries).
A review of recent court cases suggests that city governments receive mixed judicial support for residency policies. In Shapiro v. Thompson and Donnelly v. City of Manchester, the courts rejected the "public coffer" argument as economically unmeasurable. They also held that residency requirements violate the 14th Amendment equal protection clause by infringing on the constitutional right to travel and to live where one wishes without a compelling governmental interest to justify the restrictions. The courts decided in favor of the "emergency" and "visibility" arguments in Marabuto v. Town of Emeryville and Detroit Police Officers Association v. City of Detroit.
The crux of any court case that the recent D.C. firings may bring will be the balancing of a compelling city interest in having its employees be residents with the employees' constitutional rights to live where they wish, to travel and to equal protection under the law.
Residency policies, though politically attractive, make little sense in a large metropolitian area where geographical boundaries are arbitrary and indistinct. The weight of recent decisions appears to come down against residency, something the financially strapped District should consider before it enters an expensive legal argument. The only interest that may satisfy scrutiny is an employee's ability to respond quickly to an emergency situation, and this would apply to few of the District employees affected by the residency policy.
At a time when public opinion appears to be in favor of getting government off our backs, the District will be hard pressed to argue that some city interest outweighs an employee's constitutional rights.