(CN) - Disgraced former Orange County Sheriff Michael Carona did not violate the rights of a lieutenant whom he demoted after beating in the polls, the 9th Circuit ruled Monday.
Carona, once a darling of the law enforcement community, is serving a five-year sentence in federal prison in Colorado for witness tampering, and has been embroiled for years in corruption scandals that have made him no stranger to the San Francisco-based federal appeals court.
The 9th Circuit's latest Corona ruling lets the former sheriff off the hook for demoting William Hunt, a former department lieutenant who ran unsuccessfully against Corano in 2006, accusing the incumbent of fostering a culture of corruption.
Before throwing his hat in, Hunt served as police chief for the city of San Clemente, which contracted with the sheriff's department for police services. After besting him in the election, Carono placed Hunt on administrative leave and demoted him.
Hunt sued, claiming the moves were made in retaliation for his exercise of his First Amendment rights during the campaign.
After sending several issues to a jury, a Los Angeles federal judge ruled that the First Amendment did not protect Hunt as a "policymaker" in the department. While a three-judge panel of the 9th Circuit strongly disagreed with that finding, it nonetheless upheld the lower court's ruling on Monday.
"We conclude, like the district court, that Carona could have reasonably but mistakenly believed that Hunt's demotion was not unconstitutional, given the unique nature of his job as chief of police services for the city of San Clemente," Judge Kim McLane Wardlaw wrote for the court. "Although Hunt's position had no department-wide policymaking responsibility, influence, or control, as the jury found, Hunt exercised discretion over the implementation of OCSD policy within San Clemente, influenced OCSD policy as it affected San Clemente, and formulated plans to implement OCSD policy in San Clemente. While Hunt had to secure authority before speaking with the public, when he did so, it was on behalf of the OCSD."
"Even if Carona engaged in the appropriate analysis and wrongly concluded that Hunt was a policymaker such that demoting him was constitutional," she added, "we cannot say that he acted objectively unreasonably in concluding he could demote Hunt without violating his constitutional rights."
The case is similar to that of Jeffrey Bardzik, former commander of the sheriff department's Reserve Division. After Bardzik backed the wrong man in the 2006 election, Carona buried him in a dead-end position in the Court Operations department and denied him raises and promotions.
Though the 9th Circuit ruled last year that Bardzik was a policymaker and so not protected from political retaliation, it said Carona should have left the commander alone after demoting him.
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