Archived Story

Supreme Court hears Alexander City case

Published 7:12pm Friday, June 20, 2014

The Supreme Court of the United States ruled Thursday on a case that began in Alexander City when a Central Alabama Community College employee was fired after testifying in a 2006 federal corruption trial.

The court held that public employees cannot be fired after testifying about corruption they witness in government, which reversed a previous ruling by lower courts.

Edward Lane, who was hired in 2006 by Central Alabama Community College as director of the school’s Community Intensive Training for Youth program (CITY), began an audit of the program’s expenses due to significant financial difficulties faced by the program. During the course of the audit, Lane discovered that an Alabama State Representative on CITY’s payroll, Suzanne Schmitz, had not been reporting to her office. Despite warnings from CACC’s president at the time along with the school’s attorney that firing Smith could have negative repercussions for both CACC and Lane, Lane eventually fired Schmitz. The termination drew the attention of the Federal Bureau of Investigation. Lane was called to testify before a grand jury in November of 2006, and in January 2008, Schmitz was indicted by a grand jury. Though the initial case was dismissed when a jury failed to reach a verdict, Schmitz was later convicted and sentenced to 30 months in prison and ordered to pay $177,251.82 in restitution.

Lane began reporting to CACC President Steve Franks in November 2008, at which point he recommended layoffs to address CITY’s financial difficulties. Franks fired 29 CITY employees, including Lane. Though 27 of the firings were rescinded, Lane was not reinstated. He sued Franks in both his personal and official capacity alleging that his firing was retaliation for his testimony, which was a violation of his personal rights.  Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who wrote the opinion for the court, said lower courts that relied on a 2006 Supreme Court precedent, which held a deputy district attorney could be disciplined by superiors by testifying about police misconduct, read the case too broadly. Justice Sotomayor said in her opinion that Lane had no choice but to testify in the corruption trial as he had been subpoenaed.  The Supreme Court’s opinion relied on a precedent set by a 1968 case, Pickering vs. Board of Education of Township High School District 205. The case found that when public employees speak on matters of public concern, rather than employees carrying out their duties, they are protected by the first amendment.

Since Lane did not normally participate in court proceedings in his official duties, his testimony was instead delivered as a citizen, which is protected speech by the First Amendment. Justice Sotomayor stated that to rule against Lane “would place public employees who witness corruption in an impossible position, torn between the obligation to testify truthfully and the desire to avoid retaliation and keep their jobs.”

The court remanded the case back for further proceedings. Justice Sotomayor delivered the opinion for a unanimous Court, Justice Clarence Thomas filed a concurring opinion, joined by Justice Antonin Scalia and Justice Samuel Alito.