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The Supreme Court Thursday struck down certain widespread political patronage practices by state and city governments, holding they violated the constitutional free-speech protections.

On a 5-4 vote, it declared unconstitutional promotion, transfer, recall, and hiring decisions involving low-level public employees, based solely on party affiliation or support. The decision extends the scope of its earlier rulings that the Constitution's free-speech protections in the First Amendment bar the firing of public employees for only political reasons.

"Promotion, transfers and recalls based on political affiliation or support are an impermissible infringement on public employees' First Amendment rights," Justice William Brennan said for the majority. "These patronage practices are not narrowly tailored to serve vital government interests."

"The preservation of the democratic process is not furthered by these patronage decisions, since political parties are nurtured by other, less intrusive and equally effective methods and since patronage decidedly impairs the elective process by discouraging public employees' free political expression," Brennan said.

He concluded that the government's interest in getting loyal employees can be adequately met by the hiring or firing of only high-level political aides.

The case was brought by Illinois state employees who charged that Gov. James Thompson and the state Republican Party violated their legal rights by using political factors in hiring, promoting and transferring state workers. They charged that this patronage system violated their constitutional right of free speech by penalizing them for their political associations.

Two employees said they lost a promotion in a state agency to less senior colleagues who supported the Republican Party. A third did not get a new job because he failed to get signatures of Republican officials on his application.

In his dissent, Justice Antonin Scalia warned that the ruling could have "disastrous consequences for our political system" and added that patronage has long been an accepted political tradition. His dissent was joined by Chief Justice William H. Rehnquist and Justices Anthony M. Kennedy and Sandra Day O'Connor. The decision keeps alive a $1 billion damage suit by the three that also seeks to shift control of the state employment system to a court-appointed federal receiver.

The court also:

Police Searches -- By 6-3, expanded police powers by allowing them to search a home when they are let in by someone they mistakenly believe has authority to consent to a warrantless search.

In a case from Chicago, it said evidence from such searches may be used in court as long as police, at the time of the entry, reasonably believe the person who granted them access shared authority over the premises with the owner.

Social Clubs -- Ruled unanimously that non-profit social clubs may not gain a federal tax advantage by deliberately incurring losses from selling food and drink to non-members. It said the Portland (Ore.) Golf Club may not use such losses to offset investment profits, a decision the Internal Revenue Service said would mean a federal revenue gain of at least $4 million nationwide.

Libel -- On a 7-2 vote, reinstated a lawsuit by Michael Milkovich, a former high school wrestling coach in Maple Heights, Ohio, against the News-Herald of Lake County. It ruled that allegedly libelous statements in the case can be treated as assertions of fact, not merely opinion.

His team was involved in a melee after a match with another team in 1974. A sportswriter implied in his newspaper column that Milkovich "lied" under oath at a court hearing into the incident. State courts threw out the suit on the grounds the article was constitutionally protected opinion.

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