The Supreme Court and the spoils system: Political patronage in the aftermath of the Rutan case

Date of Completion

January 1998


Law|Political Science, Public Administration




What is the state of local political patronage in the wake of the Supreme Court's ruling in the Rutan case, which outlawed the practice excepting a narrow band of positions for which political affiliation is an appropriate requirement? A national survey of municipal and county chief executive officers revealed that patronage continues to exist in 15.7 percent of local governments, though the number of positions affected averages only 2.45 per government. Survey evidence suggests that the lack of compliance is due at least in part to poor communication of the decision to local officials, only 4 percent of whom were familiar with the case. Local officials report relying mainly on regional and local newspapers for their information about the Court, though few such newspapers carried information about the decision. Knowledge of the decision is not associated with compliance. Officials most familiar with the case practiced judicial vigilance and were far more likely to be violators.^ What accounts for the persistence of political patronage in local governments? Communities with a history of traditional political organizations, an indifferent public, and a highly competitive political system are more likely to support patronage. A logistic regression analysis indicated that the best predictors of patronage are partisan elections, higher levels of political competition, substantive knowledge of the Rutan case, and low trust. Positions most likely to be subject to patronage are those that are useful in soliciting campaign contributions from business and commercial interests. This suggests that the patronage armies of the past have been replaced by a small number of strategically placed patronage kingpins.^ The study underscores the importance of including communication in any theory that hopes to account for judicial compliance. The Rutan case demonstrates clearly that activists who wish to forge political change would do well to pursue political avenues of redress rather than relying on Supreme Court action. ^