Philly police seek end to 1950 ban on political contributions

Philly FOP says ban on political donations stifles

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The century of political corruption that saturated Philadelphia between 1850 and 1950 has receded, and a reform that was prompted by it -- a provision in the city's home rule charter barring police officers from making political contributions -- now violates the constitutional right to free speech, according the police union.

A union lawyer sought to make that case to the 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals last week.

"Since 1950, we're not in the same world," Thomas Jennings of Jennings Sigmond told the three-judge panel of the appeals court.

The police union is appealing a decision from the district court that had sided with the city.

"It is a totally different environment, and yet speech is still chilled," he said, based on level of corruption that hasn't existed for more than 60 years.

But Eleanor Ewing of the city's law department says the situation has improved because the reforms remain in place.

The political history of Philadelphia is proof that the potential for corruption here is not just conjectural, Ms. Ewing said. "Philadelphia is not an angelic place where all will be peace and love if this is removed," she told the court.

Mr. Jennings had noted that the civil service system replaced political patronage in the granting of promotions within the department after 1950, which could also be responsible for the retreat of corruption in the last six decades.

Ms. Ewing, however, said that civil service laws were in place before the provision was added to the charter in 1951, but conceded that the civil service system is stronger today than it was then.

Addressing Mr. Jennings, Senior Judge Anthony J. Scirica added that other provisions of the charter restricting political solicitation could have also contributed. Mr. Jennings bristled, saying that the union isn't challenging them.

"The reality is, the whole world has changed since 1950," Mr. Jennings said. "Politicians don't control who gets hired and fired anymore."

"You have a vigorous two-party system, or three-party system, here in Philadelphia?" Judge Thomas M. Hardiman asked.

"No. We clearly don't have that," Mr. Jennings answered.

The provision the union is challenging was a product of the reform meant to stem the hegemonic control of the Republican party over the city, Judge Hardiman said.

"Now could you say one party is [still] exerting hegemonic control over the city of Philadelphia?" he asked, alluding to the dominance of the Democratic party in city government.

One party controls the politics, Mr. Jennings conceded, but it has "absolutely, positively" no control over promotions in the police department, he said. And there isn't a "shred" of evidence otherwise.

Judge Hardiman appeared to agree with Mr. Jennings on the weight of the evidence presented by the city that the potential for political corruption is lurking.

"I was personally underwhelmed by your evidence of corruption," Judge Hardiman told Ms. Ewing, explaining that he saw each instance the city cited as an example of a "rogue" act not indicative of a broader scheme of corruption.

Similarly, Mr. Jennings had argued that the only evidence offered by the city involved a couple of dirty cops, but, he said, there have also been dirty politicians and dirty judges.

"Because there are two bad judges in Luzerne County, what inference do you draw from that?" Mr. Jennings said, referring to the pair of judges who were convicted on charges stemming from the "kids-for-cash" scandal in Northeastern Pennsylvania.

Judge Scirica quoted from the U.S. Supreme Court's 2010 decision in Citizens United v. Federal Election Commission, saying that the high court has consistently upheld bans on government employees making political contributions.

"Isn't that a pretty strong signal from the court that these bans on political contributions are still OK constitutionally?" Judge Scirica asked?


Saranac Hale Spencer: sspencer@alm.com or 215-557-2449. Read more articles like this at www.thelegalintelligencer.com.

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