Joel Dillard & Associates

Representing Working People

Why (Most) Government Employees Cannot be Fired At Will

Many people at some time in their life are told - usually by a smug boss - that they can be lawfully fired at any time, without notice, for any reason or no reason. This is not exactly true, but it is not exactly untrue either. The truth is, most employees in the private sector can be fired at will, but the failure to identify a compelling reason opens the employer up to a variety of civil rights claims.

Government employment is a totally different story. Most government employees - including most state and local employees - have a right to due process, and can only be fired for cause. For example, in Mississippi the legislature created a Statewide Personnel System which protects all employees of state departments, agencies and institutions as defined herein, with only certain specific exceptions. Miss. Code § 25-9-107. The purpose is to ensure that hiring and firing are based on sound methods of personnel administration and to build a career service in government which will attract, select and retain the best persons. Miss. Code § 25-9-101; see also § 25-9-103. As a result, termination is only for cause. Miss. Code § 25-9-127. Similar civil service protections apply to most other civil servants as well, from the municipality, Miss. Code § 21-31-23; Miss. Code § 21-31-71, to the federal government, 5 U.S.C. § 7513.

In the rare case where a government employee is at will, the statute typically says so explicitly and in no uncertain terms, e.g.: However, any employee which the county administrator is authorized to employ may be terminated at the will and pleasure of the administrator. Miss. Code § 19-2-9(1). As the Fifth Circuit observed, the statutes are usually quite explicit about this: Many Mississippi statutes governing the employment practices of public employers expressly prescribe either a ‘terminable at will’ or a ‘for cause’ standard. Conley v. Board of Trustees of Grenada County Hosp., 707 F. 2d 175, 179 (5th Cir. 1983). At will termination is clearly the exception rather than the rule.

And for good reason. Robust civil service protections are perhaps the key weapon in the ongoing war against corruption and patronage, as a review of our history shows.

The founding fathers understood - as John Adams put it - that when the independence of the civil executive is compromised, it corrupts ‘as necessarily as rust corrupts iron, or as arsenic poisons the human body; and when the legislature is corrupted the people are undone.’ Henry Adams, Civil Service Reform, 109 The North American Review, No. 225, pp. 443-475 (Oct. 1869). The early Presidents maintained a strong but uncodified tradition of executive independence and rational administration over the first half-century or so of the nation. Id. But by the time of the Grant administration, things had definitely changed for the worse, as Adams’ great-grandson Henry observed: the executive which had originally been organized as a permanent system with a permanent and independent existence, and a temporary head, was wholly changed in its nature and as a result, civil servants were terminated for arbitrary or political reasons, resulting in profound corruption through all levels of government. Id. The evils of this system were obvious to all - particularly after President Garfield was assassinated by his own political operative, who was unhappy with the President’s decisions in awarding patronage. This resulted in his successor, President Arthur, signing into law the Pendleton Act of 1883, the first formal step toward preserving an independent corps of civil servants immune from patronage.

Adoption of similar systems in the states was uneven at first - political machines like Tammany Hall exerted enormous pressure to preserve their corruption and forestalled reformers repeatedly over the decades. But when Franklin Roosevelt crushed Tammany Hall by shutting off patronage, and tying the grant of funding to explicit civil service requirements, the fortunes of the reform movement began to turn, and, through slow and incremental progress, good government triumphed. Cf. Gergely Ujhelyi, Civil Service Rules and Policy Choices: Evidence from U.S. State Goverments, 6.2 American Economic Journal 338, 343-45 (2014). By 1950, more than half of states had comprehensive civil service protections. Id. at 347. By 1977, when Mississippi adopted comprehensive merit system protections, it was the 48th state in the nation to do so; robust civil service protections had become the norm. Id. Because patronage was the currency of machine politics, the direct result of the civil service system was to clean up the previously rampant corruption of the machine, from city hall to the state house.

There is a key difference between public and private employment: In the private sector, the at will employment doctrine protects private enterprise against government intervention. Indeed, the private employer’s right to fire employees is itself a property right of the private employer which cannot be deprived without due process. Brock v. Roadway Express, Inc., 481 U.S. 252, 260 (1987). By contrast, in the public sector, at will doctrine does just the opposite, shielding government corruption and arbitrary action. The at will doctrine in public employment explicitly countenances arbitrary action by government. That is a fundamental difference.


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