SIMPSON, Circuit Judge:
Appellant Bettye Keener Stegmaier commenced this action on November 11, 1976, against appellee Jerry Pete Trammell, then Circuit Clerk elect for Cherokee County, Alabama. Stegmaier sought general injunctive and other relief for alleged violations of the First and Fourteenth Amendments and 42 U.S.C. §§ 1983, 1985, 1986, and 1988. She alleged that Trammell violated her rights to freedom of belief, speech and association by threatening to discharge her as Deputy Circuit Clerk because she failed to support him in the election for the office of Circuit Clerk. The district court, pursuant to Federal Rule of Civil Procedure 65(a)(2), ordered the trial of this action on the merits consolidated with the hearing scheduled on appellant's application for injunctive relief. In its Memorandum of Decision, dated January 13, 1977, the district
We affirm, holding that a public employee occupying a position of confidence, loyalty, and trust by virtue of her status as the single deputy and assistant to an elected official may be discharged solely on the ground of political affiliations without infringing her constitutional rights.
I. STATEMENT OF THE CASE
On March 18, 1974, appellant was appointed Deputy Circuit Clerk for Cherokee County, Alabama, by Fred Green, then Circuit Clerk. Green was defeated by appellee Trammell for the Democratic Party nomination for the position of Circuit Clerk in a primary runoff election held on May 25, 1976. In the November 2, 1976, general election Trammell was elected Circuit Clerk. One of his opponents was Green, who had run again as an independent.
After his election Trammell informed appellant that she would be replaced as Deputy Circuit Clerk on January 18, 1977, the date on which Trammell was to begin serving his elective term.
In his answer Trammell admitted that he informed appellant she would be replaced, denied each and every other allegation contained in the complaint, and noted that appellant had declined other employment in the office of the Circuit Clerk which he had tendered. Trammell raised several defenses. First, he asserted that as a newly elected Circuit Clerk, whose duties and responsibilities included judgment and policymaking decisions as well as the collection and safekeeping of public funds, he had the right to discharge appellant and appoint someone of his own choice. Second, Trammell contended that he was under a duty as the newly elected Circuit Clerk to select a qualified, competent individual in whom he had great confidence where his predecessor, Green, had been indicted for embezzlement.
By way of affidavit in support of his motion for summary judgment Trammell stated that he intended to appoint Dean Perron to the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk. Mrs. Perron was one of the original candidates in the Democratic primary for the office of Circuit Clerk. In Trammell's opinion Perron was "an experienced businesswoman, fully competent to act as Deputy Circuit Clerk," and a person in whom he had much trust and confidence.
Trammell, by his affidavit, again denied that he wanted to discharge appellant because she failed to support his candidacy for the office of Circuit Clerk, but he did "recognize" that it was Stegmaier's duty and obligation to remain loyal to her employer, Fred Green, and to support him for re-election. Trammell also asserted that the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk is a policymaking position, involving obligations of trust. Furthermore, he claimed that the Deputy Circuit Clerk, as the chief assistant to the Circuit Clerk, enjoys a confidential relationship with the Clerk. Finally, Trammell argued that since the Deputy Circuit Clerk has the responsibility of running the Clerk's office in the absence of the Clerk, the Deputy's duties included various policymaking
This cause came on for hearing on January 10, 1977, pursuant to the district court's order of December 29, 1976, by which the trial of the action on the merits was advanced and consolidated with the hearing for interlocutory injunctive relief. See Fed.R.Civ.P. 65(a)(2). According to the terms of the district court's December 29th order, and as reflected by the record, the cause was submitted to the court for final decision on the merits upon conclusion of oral argument in the hearing for injunctive relief. The record does not reflect that any testimony was taken at this hearing, it appearing that the district court decided the issues raised on the basis of the appellant's complaint and the defendant's answer and affidavit in support of his motion for summary judgment.
The district court found that appellant was entitled to none of the relief requested. The court held that under Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), Trammell's replacement of appellant was an "authorized patronage dismissal". This conclusion was attained through a two-step analysis. First, the district court found that the position of Circuit Clerk was a "policymaking position" as that term was envisioned in Elrod. Second, the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk was a "policymaking position" by virtue of statutory language and judicial interpretation vesting the deputy with duties and authorities concurrent with the Clerk. Hence, the district court concluded, since a "policymaking position" is specifically susceptible to "lawful patronage dismissals" under Elrod, Stegmaier was entitled to no relief.
II. Elrod v. Burns AND ITS PROGENY
In Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976), the Supreme Court of the United States held that patronage dismissals of public employees—discharging employees on a partisan, political basis—infringe first amendment interests. Respondents in Elrod, all Republicans, were employees
On review the Supreme Court affirmed the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit,
The plurality opinion held that while patronage dismissals infringe first amendment interests, they could survive constitutional challenge if they furthered some "vital
427 U.S. at 367-68, 96 S.Ct. at 2687 (emphasis in original).
Mr. Justice Stewart declined to join in the plurality's consideration of the constitutional validity of the patronage system generally. Instead, he viewed the "single substantive question involved in [Elrod as being] whether a nonpolicymaking, nonconfidential government employee can be discharged from a job that he is satisfactorily performing upon the sole ground of his political beliefs". 427 U.S. at 374-75, 96 S.Ct. at 2690 (emphasis added, Stewart, J., concurring). The answer was that he cannot.
Courts and commentators have read Mr. Justice Stewart's narrow position as the Court's holding in Elrod. See Ramey v. Harber, 589 F.2d 753, 757 & nn. 2, 3 (4th Cir. 1978), aff'g in part and rev'g in part, 431 F.Supp. 657 (W.D.Va.1977), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 99 S.Ct. 2823, 61 L.Ed.2d 275 (1979); Comment, Patronage And The First Amendment After Elrod v. Burns, 78 Colum.L.Rev. 468, 473 n. 55 (1978). See generally Marks v. United States, 430 U.S. 188, 193, 97 S.Ct. 990, 993, 51 L.Ed.2d 260
Therefore, if appellant Stegmaier is properly classified as a policymaking, confidential employee, the district court was correct in finding that she was entitled to no relief.
The district court found, as a matter of fact, that the position of Circuit Clerk was a policymaking position. Recognizing that the Deputy Circuit Clerk is vested with powers concurrent to the Circuit Clerk's, the district court then concluded that the office of Deputy Clerk was also a policymaking position.
Our review of this factual finding
Under Elrod v. Burns the question of whether a particular public employee is a policymaker can be answered only by analyzing the nature of the employee's responsibilities. 427 U.S. at 367, 96 S.Ct. at 2687. "[T]itles alone do not provide the answer". Note, Will the Victor Be Denied the Spoils? Constitutional Challenges to Patronage Dismissals, 4 Hastings L.Q. 165, 182 (1977). Elrod also requires that in close cases doubt should be resolved in favor of the public employee subjected to patronage dismissal. 427 U.S. at 368, 96 S.Ct. at 2687. Unfortunately, Elrod does not provide any definition of "policymaking positions" other than intimating that policy makers have broad responsibilities with ill-defined objectives, and may act as advisers or formulate plans for the implementation of broad goals. 427 U.S. at 367-68, 96 S.Ct. at 2687. Policymakers also may be identified as public employees whose responsibilities require more than simple ministerial competence, whose decisions create or implement policy, and whose discretion in performing duties or in selecting duties to perform is not severely limited by statute, regulation, or policy determinations made by supervisors. See Johnson v. Bergland, 586 F.2d 993 (4th Cir. 1978); Newcomb v. Brennan, 558 F.2d 825 (7th Cir.), cert. denied, 434 U.S. 968, 98 S.Ct. 513, 54 L.Ed.2d 455 (1977). A policymaker also may be an individual who "controls or exercises a role in a decision making process as to the goals and general operating procedures of [an] office". Ramey v. Harber, 431 F.Supp. 657, 666 n. 15 (W.D.Va.1977), aff'd in part & rev'd in part on other grounds, 589 F.2d 753 (4th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 99 S.Ct. 2823, 61 L.Ed.2d 275, (1979). The statutory duties and authority of Circuit and Deputy Circuit Clerks under Alabama's unified judicial system do not fall within the scope of the term "policymaker" as that term has been defined above.
In 1973 Article VI of the Alabama Constitution was amended to provide for a "unified judicial system". Ala.Const. art. VI, § 6.01(a) (Amendment No. 328, ratified Dec. 27, 1973). Under this constitutional provision Circuit Clerks are elected by qualified voters in each county for six-year terms. Id. § 6.20(b). On October 9, 1975, the Alabama Legislature adopted a measure designed to implement the new judicial article of the Alabama Constitution. Act No. 1205, 1975 Ala.Acts (codified in scattered sections of Ala.Code tit. 12 (1975)). Under this act the administrative office of courts was created. Ala.Code tit. 12, § 12-5-1 (1975). The administrative office of the courts was given authority to "serve as an agency to apply for and receive grants or other assistance and to coordinate or conduct studies and projects in connection with the improvement of the administration of justice." Id. § 12-5-2(a).
Under Alabama's unified judicial system the state department charged with the duty of assisting the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of Alabama in connection with his duties as chief administrative officer of the courts is the department of court management. Id. § 12-5-3(a). Among other duties, the department of court management is required to work with the clerks of all state courts to "collect, obtain, compile and digest information and statistics concerning the administration of justice in the state". Id. § 12-5-3(b)(1). "Unless the chief justice otherwise directs, the department of court management, under the direction of the administrative director of courts, shall have the responsibility for trial
Section 12-5-10 of the Alabama Code prescribes the duties and authorities of the administrative director of the courts. That section provides:
Ala.Code tit. 12, § 12-5-10 (1975).
The administrative director of courts also is responsible for the direction of expenditure of funds for all courts, for all functions, directly or indirectly affecting the operation of any court. Id. § 12-5-13(b). He also is authorized to employ consultants for the purpose of conducting studies and projects pertaining to the administration of justice and improvement of courts in Alabama. Id. § 12-5-14. In connection with studies, projects and functions designed to improve or effect the administration of justice, section 12-5-18 is also relevant. That section provides:
Id. § 12-5-18 (emphasis added).
In contrast to the broad duties and responsibilities of the administrative director of the courts, the authority and duties of the office of Circuit Clerk are Specifically delineated by statute. Although elected under the Alabama Constitution, Circuit Clerks are employed and paid by the State of Alabama. Id. § 12-17-80. The authority of the Circuit Clerk is found in section 12-17-93 which provides:
Clerks of the circuit court have authority:
Id. § 12-17-93 (1975) (emphasis added).
The Circuit Clerk's duties are also specifically defined by statute:
Id. § 12-17-94 (1975). Other duties of Circuit Clerks include: certifying a copy of indictments against convicts sentenced to the penitentiary, id. § 12-17-96; paying money in his possession at the expiration of his term of office to his successor upon demand, id. § 12-17-97; preparing monthly reports on forms approved by the chief examiner of public accounts, showing the amount of fines, trial tax, district attorney fees and other fees that accrue to the benefit of the state, county or municipality that were collected the preceding month, id. § 12-1-19; notifying the parties or one of their attorneys of record of the date of a court-ordered special session of court, id. § 12-11-7; transferring a case to the docket of the appropriate court when filed in a court lacking jurisdiction, id. § 12-11-9; accepting payment from parents legally obligated to support a child after a judicial
Circuit Clerks, therefore, have no authority to make policy decisions with regard to: compilation of data and statistics; prescription of administrative and business methods, systems, forms, and records used in the Clerk's office; preparation of budgetary recommendations; investigation and recommendation regarding physical facilities; and procurement, distribution, and assignment of equipment, books, forms, and supplies. This authority is expressly vested in the administrative director of the courts. Ala.Code tit. 12, § 12-5-10 (1975). The only role the Circuit Clerk plays in the broad scheme of policy determination is ministerial—the clerk's "services" are available to the administrative director of the courts. Id. § 12-5-18.
The district court was clearly erroneous in finding that the Circuit Clerk occupies a policymaking position. Consequently, even though the Deputy Circuit Clerk has authority concurrent to the Circuit Clerk's, the deputy cannot be deemed a policymaker. This conclusion, however, does not require reversal of the judgment entered below: it is firmly established that an appellate court must affirm the lower court's judgment if the result is correct even though it is based upon an improper ground. SEC v. Chenery Corp., 318 U.S. 80, 88, 63 S.Ct. 454, 459, 87 L.Ed. 626 (1943); Eltra Corp. v. Ringer, 579 F.2d 294, 298 & n. 12 (4th Cir. 1978); Lum Wan v. Esperdy, 321 F.2d 123, 125 (2d Cir. 1963); cf. Raven v. Panama Canal Co., 583 F.2d 169, 171 (5th Cir. 1978), cert. denied, ___ U.S. ___, 99 S.Ct. 1787, 60 L.Ed.2d 240 (1979) (successful party in the district court may sustain its judgment on any ground that finds support in the record).
We must decide, therefore, whether the district court's judgment must be affirmed because appellant Stegmaier occupied a position of confidence, loyalty, and trust. This requires consideration of two questions: (1) whether there is a "confidential employee" exception to Elrod v. Burns in addition to the "policymaking employee" exception; and (2) if there is such an exception, whether appellant Stegmaier falls within its scope even though the elected official with whom she would have to "enjoy" a relationship of confidence, loyalty, and trust is not a policymaking public official.
IV. CONFIDENTIAL EMPLOYEES
A question raised by the concurring opinion in Elrod is whether the language "nonpolicymaking, nonconfidential" established two classes of public employees subject to patronage dismissals. One commentary and analysis of Elrod has suggested that the concurring opinion created two exceptions to the Court's general proscription of patronage dismissals, permitting patronage dismissals of confidential employees as well as public employees in policymaking positions. The Supreme Court, 1975 Term, 90 Harv.L.Rev. 186, 193-94 (1976).
Id. at 194 & n. 41 (emphasis added).
Another commentator has suggested that a confidential employee might be deemed a policymaker within the meaning of Elrod,
Id. at 285-86 (footnote omitted).
The existence of a confidential employee exception is further buttressed by the Elrod plurality opinion's repeated citation of a decision of the Court of Appeals for the Seventh Circuit written by then Circuit Judge Stevens, who did not participate in Elrod although a member of the Supreme Court. Illinois State Employees Union, Council 34 v. Lewis, 473 F.2d 561 (7th Cir. 1972), cert. denied, 410 U.S. 928, 943, 93 S.Ct. 1364, 1370, 35 L.Ed.2d 590, 609 (1973). In Lewis Justice Stevens, then Circuit Judge Stevens, stated that the question before the court was whether a nonpolicymaking employee may be discharged for refusing to transfer his political allegiance from one political party to another. In reversing the district court's entry of summary judgment, erroneously predicated on rejection of the non-movant's version of the facts, then Circuit Judge Stevens said:
473 F.2d at 574 (emphasis added).
One post-Elrod decision has found that the Elrod concurrence requires that public employees be nonconfidential employees, as well as nonpolicymakers, before they can maintain an action for patronage dismissal. Finkel v. Branti, 457 F.Supp. 1284 (S.D.N.Y.1978), aff'd, 598 F.2d 609, (2d Cir. 1979) cert. granted, ___ U.S. ___, 99 S.Ct. 3095, 61 L.Ed.2d ___ (1979). In Finkel plaintiffs, assistant public defenders, had been appointed to their positions by a Republican Public Defender, also an appointee. Their employment was to be terminated when a Democratic Public Defender was appointed. Plaintiffs alleged that they were nonpolicymaking, nonconfidential employees who were satisfactorily performing their duties; therefore, attempting to replace them on political grounds violated the First and Fourteenth Amendments. The Finkel court enjoined the termination or attempted termination of the plaintiffs' employment upon the sole ground of their political beliefs, holding, inter alia, that plaintiffs were neither policymakers nor confidential employees. In attaining this result, the Finkel court said;
457 F.Supp. at 1291 (emphasis added). Finding that plaintiffs were nonconfidential employees, the Finkel court emphasized that any confidential relationship between plaintiffs and the Public Defender was in the latter's capacity as a supervisor, not in his role as decisionmaker about the orientation and operation of the public defender's office (i. e. a policymaking role).
While agreeing, in general, with the Finkel court and the commentaries discussed above that a confidential employee may constitutionally be discharged solely upon the basis of political affiliation when he stands in a confidential relationship to a policymaker or the policymaking process, we hold that appellant Stegmaier falls within the confidential employee exception even though the position of Deputy Circuit Clerk does not stand in a confidential relationship to a policymaker or a policymaking process.
Where a state, through its constitution, has decided to make certain public offices elective, it has also chosen to vest the electorate with the power to select one candidate over another for any reason. In the case of a Circuit Clerk under the Alabama unified judicial system, it is clear that a candidate for the office of Circuit Clerk can have no "policy platform" on which to seek office since policy decisions as to the operation of his office, the administration of justice, practice and procedure in the circuit courts, and the expenditure of funds are beyond his duty and authority. The public, however, does have the right under the Alabama Constitution to elect its Circuit Clerks and, presumably, attempts to elect capable and honest individuals when doing so. If there is any policy "presumably sanctioned by the electorate", Elrod v. Burns, supra, 427 U.S. at 367, 96 S.Ct. at 2687, in its election of one individual as Circuit Clerk over another, it is that of honesty and integrity. This presumption is especially strong where the nature of the Circuit Clerk's position involves the handling of private and public litigant's fees and judgments. See generally Ala.Code tit. 12, §§ 12-17-93, 12-17-94 (1975); note 3 supra. When, by statute, a deputy clerk is empowered to conduct all business which the clerk is authorized to conduct, Ala.Code tit. 12, §§ 12-17-93(2) (1975), and when, by statute, the clerk is subject to civil liability and fines for failure to perform his statutory duties, id. § 12-17-94(b), the Circuit Clerk must be afforded the opportunity to select his single deputy clerk; he must be able to select a deputy in whom he has total trust and confidence and from whom he can expect, without question, undivided loyalty. Of course these general remarks in no way reflect any judgment on appellant Stegmaier's competence, honesty or integrity; they serve simply to justify why Circuit Clerk Trammell was justified in selecting a Deputy Clerk of his own choice.
We conclude, therefore, that appellant Stegmaier falls within the confidential employee exception to Elrod v. Burns, supra, notwithstanding the fact that appellee Trammell, as Circuit Clerk, does not occupy a policymaking position.
The judgment entered by the district court below is therefore
Record at 20-21.
Record at 28 (emphasis added).
Bearing in mind that the district court's attempt to distinguish Elrod must be considered dicta, we note that the factual basis for distinguishing Elrod from the instant case may be a distinction without a difference. The fact that the public employee being discharged and the individual threatening discharge are members of the same political party is not dispositive if the consequence of the attempted patronage dismissal is politically coercive. See Elrod v. Burns, 427 U.S. 347, 355, 96 S.Ct. 2673, 2680-81, 49 L.Ed.2d 547 (1976) ("The cost of the practice of patronage is the restraint it places on freedoms of belief and association."). Furthermore, the fact that Stegmaier was offered other employment in the Clerk's office at a lower pay scale would not ameliorate any violation of her constitutional rights. Cf. Johnson v. Bergland, 586 F.2d 993 (4th Cir. 1978) (sufficient irreparable injury to warrant issuance of preliminary injunction where nonpolicymaker alleged that he was removed from his position for partisan political purposes, even though he was assigned to a new position at the same salary but with lesser responsibilities and prestige).