Judge blocks Bartholomew court policy barring political activity

A federal judge Friday blocked a Bartholomew County policy that broadly barred court services employees from political activity.

Chief Judge Richard Young of the U.S. Court for the Southern District of Indiana granted an injunction against the county courts based in Columbus in a suit brought by Youth Services Department control officer Brandon Allen, an employee since 2007. When Allen’s department came under the purview of court services in 2013, he became subject to a policy in the employee handbook restricting political activity. The Court Services Department also oversees the county’s adult probation, community corrections, and drug and alcohol treatment programs.

Allen, who has an ownership stake in a local political consulting company, has volunteered for, campaigned and donated money to political campaigns in the past, but he restricted his activities after becoming subject to the policy, according to the record. In an effort to comply with the policy, he asked supervisors multiple times about what was allowable and about whether he could retain his stake in the consulting firm.

Court Services Director Bradford Barnes replied to one such inquiry with an email. “You are correct that political activity is prohibited, other than voting and attending events to hear candidates,” he wrote. “I cannot advise you as to whether active participation in your business is prohibited and whether you need to divest yourself of your ownership. … You should be guided by the plain wording of our policy.”

Allen continued to refrain from anything that could be deemed political activity but sued over the policy, which he argues violates the First Amendment of the U.S. Constitution, Article 1, Section 9 of the Indiana Constitution, and Indiana Code 33-23-12-2.  

Young ruled Allen was has a high likelihood of success on his claim that the policy is unconstitutionally vague. The court therefore didn’t address his claims that it was unconstitutionally overbroad and unconstitutional as applied.

“Defendants are hereby enjoined from enforcing the Policy against Court Services employees, except that Court Services employees are still barred from running for or holding elective office,” Young concluded in Allen v. Bartholomew County Court Services Department, et al., 1:15-cv-925.

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