By Chase Stevens
On October 17, 2017, the Fourth Circuit published its decision in Borzilleri v. Mosby. This case dealt with the issue of First Amendment rights for prosecutors engaging in political activity as private citizens.
Since around 2006, Plaintiff (Borzilleri) had been an Assistant State Attorney, which required her to make plea deals and try serious cases. In 2014, while serving as an Assistant District Attorney in Baltimore City, Borzilleri chose to support the losing candidate, Gregg Bernstein, in the Democratic primary for State Attorney. Defendant (Mosby), who won that Democratic primary, was later elected as the new State Attorney. Four days after Defendant took office on January 5, 2015, Defendant fired Plaintiff without explanation.
Plaintiff filed suit against Defendant in the District of Maryland on December 9, 2015, alleging that Defendant violated her First Amendment rights to free association and speech. Defendant filed a motion to dismiss for failure to state a claim. The district court granted Defendant’s motion to dismiss, holding that Plaintiff’s First Amendment rights were not violated because assistant state attorneys are “policymakers” and that political loyalty to the State’s head attorney was an appropriate requirement. The district court also held that Plaintiff’s free speech rights were not violated because, as a policymaker, the balance of free speech interests tipped in favor of the government.
Freedoms of Association and Speech Not Violated
The Fourth Circuit affirmed the district court’s dismissal of Plaintiff’s complaint.
First, the Fourth Circuit held that the firing of Plaintiff did not violate her First Amendment right to free association. In Elrod v. Burns, the Supreme Court held that under the First Amendment, “policymakers” could be discharged for their political beliefs. 427 U.S. 347, 375 (1976) (Stewart, J., concurring). The Fourth Circuit reasoned that because Assistant State Attorneys exercise discretion on matters of political concern in carrying out their function and have a special role in implementing the State’s Attorney’s policies, they are policymakers. Here, the Fourth Circuit held that Assistant State Attorneys are policymakers under the First Amendment, and therefore there was no First Amendment association violation.
Second, the Fourth Circuit held that Plaintiff’s firing did not violate her First Amendment right to free speech. Initially, the Court found that Plaintiff spoke as a private citizen in endorsing a candidate and was not speaking within her duties as a prosecutor. Relying upon their policymaking determination in the first issue, however, the Fourth Circuit found that policymakers enjoy “substantially less” free speech protection, even when acting as private citizens. The Court found that the government’s overriding interest in “ensuring an elected official’s ability to implement his policies through his subordinates” outweighed Plaintiff’s right to remain an Assistant State Attorney after engaging in her political speech. Therefore, Plaintiff had no First Amendment claims against Defendant.
While Plaintiff ultimately lost her case, she raised several important considerations in her appellant’s brief.
First, in regard to the First Amendment free association claim, Plaintiff argued that political loyalty should not be an appropriate job requirement for prosecutors. Plaintiff argued, though, that even if loyalty to Defendant was an appropriate requirement for the job of Assistant State Attorney, there was no evidence that Plaintiff was ever disloyal to Defendant prior to her termination. Moreover, Plaintiff argued that because an Assistant State Attorney’s job does not involve creating policy, that role should not count as a “policymaker” falling outside of First Amendment protection. The Fourth Circuit, however, rejected this argument.
Second, in regard to the First Amendment free speech claim, Plaintiff argued that her rights to free speech were violated because Defendant terminated her in retaliation for the exercise of her political speech. Plaintiff argued that Defendant overly relied upon Plaintiff’s role as a “policymaker” to negate any First Amendment claims, when prior courts only looked at the “policymaker” status of a job as one of many factors to consider in assessing a free speech claim. Applying a free speech balancing test, Plaintiff argued that her speech should be protected because it never actually disrupted, and would never reasonably disrupt, governmental efficiency. Once again, the Fourth Circuit rejected this argument.
This case lays out the general rule that assistant prosecutorial attorneys, working under the direction of elected head prosecutors, are policymakers for the purposes of First Amendment rights. Therefore, assistant prosecutorial attorneys are entitled to less protection of First Amendment rights when engaged in political speech, even as private citizens. When openly supporting a political candidate for the head prosecutor in their office, an assistant prosecutorial attorney should be aware that he might not have a legal claim of action should the opposing candidate win and he is subsequently fired.