(CN) - Philadelphia can no longer bar its nearly 6,600 active police officers from making political contributions - a privilege enjoyed by its other 20,000 employees, the 3rd Circuit ruled.
The dispute stems from a section of Philadelphia's Home Rule Charter that has for more than 60 years kept the city's cops from supplying political candidates or committees, parties and groups with funds "for use in advocating or influencing the election."
Lodge No. 5 of the Fraternal Order of Police - the city's police union - its political action committee (COPPAC), and four officers challenged the rule's constitutionality in a federal complaint.
The union said COPPAC allows officers to speak with a "collective voice" on such issues as "better equipment, manpower, [and] livable conditions" by funding public information campaigns, as well as political candidates supportive of police positions on those issues.
But the charter prevents police from donating to COPPAC because it uses some of its relatively meager $25,000 account for partisan political purposes, according to the complaint.
Because COPPAC allegedly cannot afford its operational costs or advance political views via expensive TV ads or campaign contributions, the union said it has failed to convince legislators to increase officers' pensions, prevent workload reductions and improve working conditions.
Though the Philadelphia City Council passed a bill on May 4, 2006, that let officers have COPPAC donations automatically deducted from their paychecks, the current administration under Mayor Michael Nutter refused to implement the bill on April 28, 2011.
In granting the city summary judgment on the union's claims last year, a federal judge found that "Philadelphia's history of government corruption reveals [the city's concerns] are real and the need for the ban is compelling."
A three-judge panel with the 3rd Circuit reversed that finding Monday, finding that the ban was first meant to combat the "Republican machine" of Philadelphia's past.
"Unlike the systemic corruption that led to the charter ban, the city's episodic and individualized evidence shows only that human frailty affects police officers, just as it affects all walks of life," Judge Thomas Hardiman wrote for a three-judge panel. "Thus, while the city has demonstrated historic harm in spades, its evidence of recent politically-orchestrated harm is nonexistent."
The judge later added: "The city now has in place a system of statutory safeguards that more directly address its concerns. In light of these more targeted measures, the charter ban appears 'particularly heavy-handed.'"
Philadelphia's ban should not apply to the police alone, the 57-page ruling states.
"The record shows that the Republican machine historically extracted political assessments from all civic employees: the practice was so pervasive that, in the early 20th century, the machine collected contributions from 94 percent of the city's workforce," Hardiman wrote. "If the charter ban's purpose was to end such compulsory wage contributions, it is unclear why the city would enforce the ban only against the police. Moreover, the city has made no attempt to show that the Democratic Party's recent dominance in Philadelphia politics was achieved through corruption."
The court later added: "The ban prevents police officers from donating to a political action committee unaffiliated with any political candidate, an act that the Supreme Court has stated does not implicate concerns of quid pro quo
corruption. Nor has the city shown how the ban has any causal impact on its stated harms, and the ban is illogically under-inclusive, permitting many of the harms that the city purportedly seeks to address. These features, especially given the availability of less restrictive alternatives, compel us to invalidate the charter ban."