Saturday, April 17, 2021
The Seventh Circuit yesterday rebuffed the Cook County Clerk's challenge to a pair of consent decrees designed to monitor political patronage practices in that office and others. The ruling means that the decrees stay on the books (or, more precisely, on the district court's docket). But at the same time, the court warned that federalism concerns counsel in favor of resolving the case, and clearing the decrees from the court's docket, "swift[ly]."
The case, Shakman v. Clerk of Cook County, originated with two consent decrees, the "Shakman Decrees," from 1972 and 1991. The 1972 Decree enjoined Chicago and Cook County officials from "conditioning, basing or knowingly prejudicing or affecting any term or aspect of governmental employment, with respect to one who is at the time already a governmental employee, upon or because of any political reason or factor." The 1991 Decree expanded the 1972 Decree to cover hiring decisions: among other things, it required officials to post "prior public notice of the opportunity to apply for and be hired for" all positions, with just a few exceptions. (The City of Chicago and the Chicago Park District have since demonstrated substantial compliance and have been dismissed.)
While the Shakman Decrees remained on the district court's docket, there wasn't really any significant activity until 2019. That's when Shakman, the Voters Organization, and other plaintiffs moved for the appointment of a special master to monitor the Clerk's compliance with the Decrees. The plaintiffs claimed that the Clerk's hiring practices violated the 1991 Decree and that the Clerk took retaliatory actions against employees in violation of the 1972 Decree.
The Clerk opposed the motion and asked the magistrate judge to vacate both Decrees. After discovery and an evidentiary hearing, the magistrate judge found that the Clerk violated the Decrees, appointed a special master, and rejected the Clerk's request to vacate the Decrees. The Clerk appealed, arguing that the plaintiffs lacked standing, that the case raised nonjusticiable political questions, and that the Clerk's actions didn't violate the Decrees.
The Seventh Circuit disagreed. The court ruled first that the plaintiffs had standing, because at least one member of the Voters Organization was a current employee in the Clerk's office who refused to engage in political patronage and suffered reprisal. The court said next that the case didn't raise a nonjusticiable political question, because "both the legal right and applicable standard here"--free association under Elrod v. Burns--"are evident and judicially manageable." Finally, the court held that the magistrate judge didn't clearly err in concluding that the Clerk's "ongoing violations reflect the precise political patronage the Consent Decrees seek to end."
The court noted, however, that federalism considerations counsel in favor of ending the Decrees now, or very soon:
Our federal structure, including the Article III Case or Controversy requirement, does not contemplate federal courts putting units of state or local government under what amounts to static and permanent consent decrees. Federal injunctions interfere with local control over local decision making, and, in turn, local democracy does not work as our federal constitutional design envisions.