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Enacted in 1939, the Hatch Act (5 U.S.C.A. 7324) curbs the political activities of employees in federal, state, and local governments. The law's goal is to enforce political neutrality among civil servants: the act prohibits them from holding public office, influencing elections, participating in or managing political campaigns, and exerting Undue Influence on government hiring. Penalties for violations range from warnings to dismissal. The law's restrictions have always been controversial. Critics have long argued that the act violates the First Amendment freedoms of government employees. The U.S. Supreme Court has disagreed, twice upholding the law's constitutionality. Congress has amended the Hatch Act several times since 1939. In 1993, a number of amendments to the act sought to limit the effects of political patronage in federal hiring.
The Hatch Act grew out of nineteenth-century concerns about the political activities of federal employees. As early as 1801, President Thomas Jefferson issued an Executive Order that said federal workers should neither "influence the votes of others, nor take part in the business of electioneering." He saw such activities as "inconsistent with the spirit of the Constitution." Jefferson was primarily concerned with what government employees did while in office; subsequently, concerns developed in another area. Throughout the nineteenth century, appointments to the federal bureaucracy were viewed as the natural spoils of political success. The prevalent awarding of jobs for political loyalty created a so-called spoils system and, ultimately, a reaction against it.
The long process of neutralizing politics in federal employment continued into the twentieth century. Attempts began with the Pendleton Act of 1883 (22 Stat. 403), a comprehensive anti-patronage law named after its sponsor, Senator george h. pendleton, who argued that "the spoils system needs to be killed or it will kill the republic" (14 Cong. Rec. 206 ). The law sought to eliminate patronage by insulating federal employees from coercion. It provided that they could not be fired for refusing to work on behalf of a candidate or for choosing not to make campaign contributions. In 1907, President Theodore Roosevelt instituted even broader controls through Executive Order 642. Its two major prohibitions addressed employees in the executive civil service and the larger class of federal civil servants. The former were forbidden to use their authority to interfere in elections, and the latter were barred from taking part in political management or campaigning. This order marked the first time that federal employees had limits placed on their First Amendment right to engage in political speech.
The passage of the Hatch Act in 1939 combined the prohibitions of earlier executive orders and the Pendleton Act. The act includes restrictions on political activity for the whole federal bureaucracy. The act stated,"[N]o officer or employee in the Executive Branch of the Federal government, or in any agency or department thereof, shall take any active part in political management or in political campaigns" (ch. 410, § 9(a)). The measure received bipartisan support in a response to concern about the New Deal—President franklin d. roosevelt's economic program for relieving the effects of the Great Depression—which significantly increased the ranks of federal employees. Congress wanted to rein in Roosevelt's power, especially following allegations that he had used Works Progress Administration employees to influence the 1938 congressional elections. Opponents of patronage in general and enemies of Roosevelt in particular thought the New Deal represented an opportunity for the president to meddle with elections while perpetuating his hold on the White House.
Congress increased the scope of the Hatch Act in 1940 by extending its restrictions to employees of state and local governments that receive federal funds (Act of July 19, 1940, ch. 640, 54 Stat. 767), although it cut back certain applications of this measure in 1974. At various times it has also increased or decreased the penalties for Hatch Act violations—notably, by including suspension without pay as a lesser penalty. In 1993, Congress made yet more changes aimed at curtailing patronage in jobs: amendments to 5 U.S.C.A. § 3303 restricted elected officials from making unsolicited recommendations for job applicants seeking federal employment. States, meanwhile, have broadly incorporated the principles of the Hatch Act in their own statutes, which have also undergone revision over time.
Debate over the Hatch Act has been vigorous since its inception. Critics have portrayed it as an unfair restriction on the First Amendment rights of government employees, especially violative of their fundamental right to engage in political speech. This argument formed the basis of an early suit that the U.S. Supreme Court heard in 1947, United Public Workers of America v. Mitchell, 330 U.S. 75, 67 S. Ct. 556, 91 L. Ed. 754. In sustaining the legality of the Hatch Act, the Court balanced individual speech rights against the "elemental need for order," and found the latter more important. The Court rejected another challenge to the law in 1973 in United States Civil Service Commission v. National Ass'n of Letter Carriers, 413 U.S. 548, 93 S. Ct. 2880, 37 L. Ed. 2d 796. Opponents continued to attack these rulings throughout the 1990s. "Unfortunately for those individuals who have chosen a career in the federal public service," argued author Michael Bridges in a 1993 law review article, "the Court has found that Congress may place an asterisk beside their First Amendment rights."
Bridges, Michael. 1993. "Release the Gags: The Hatch Act and Current Legislative Reform." Capital University Law Review (winter).
Feinstein, Andrew A., and Douglas K. Nelson. 1988. "Hatch Act Reform." Federal Bar News and Journal (July/August).
Gely, Rafael, and Timothy D. Chandler. 2000. "Restricting Public Employees' Political Activities: Good Government or Partisan Politics?" Houston Law Review 37 (fall).
Polley, James D. 1994. "Hatch Act Reform Amendments of 1993." Prosecutor (September/October).
Segal, Lydia. 1998. "Can We Fight the New Tammany Hall?: Difficulties of Prosecuting Political Patronage and Suggestions for Reform. Rutgers Law Review 50 (winter).