A rush to judgment

A Washington, D.C., social studies teacher was fired Monday because nine years ago, Congress was in a hurry.

In 1993, Congress passed an extensive series of amendments to the Hatch Act, a 1940 statute designed to prevent corruption in the civil service by prohibiting federal employees from a variety of political activities. The amendments, which passed the House and Senate with overwhelming majorities, repealed many of the law’s limits on federal employees’ right to engage in partisan political activities on their own time and were hailed as restoring political rights to federal workers.

Tom Briggs is probably not so willing to heap praise on the act. Briggs, who until Monday taught and coached baseball at D.C.’s Dunbar Senior High School, ran for City Council in 2000 on the D.C. Statehood Green Party ticket. Although he lost in a landslide to the Democratic incumbent, Briggs’ campaign drew the attention of the federal Office of Special Counsel, which had the Merit Systems Protection Board and a judge order Briggs fired for violating the Hatch Act’s prohibition on federal employees running for elected partisan office.

The Office of Special Counsel insists it has no discretion given the wording of the statute. Although technically true, the office’s position ignores a legislative history indicating Congress never intended to subject teachers to the statute’s requirements.

Prior to the 1993 amendments, the Hatch Act exempted schoolteachers. But in its haste to get the amendments passed after a long and acrimonious fight, Congress passed a final version of the bill with an amendment declaring all District of Columbia workers federal employees. Language exempting teachers from this rule was inexplicably omitted from the bill, and House Democrats planning to add that protection in a conference committee were stymied when then-Sen. William Roth (R-Del.) filibustered the appointment of the conference committee. Desperate to produce some results for years of effort, the House passed the Senate version of the bill, dropping the special protection for teachers.

The extensive and long-winded floor debate in both houses contained ample condemnation of corrupt federal administrators using their subordinates to extort campaign contributions. But teachers are only mentioned once, in a congressman’s speech describing teachers’ need for protection from unscrupulous education administrators. No member of Congress placed teachers in the group of powerful bureaucrats the Hatch Act is designed to control.

“It is a familiar rule,” the Supreme Court said in a landmark case, “that a thing may be within the letter of the statute and yet not within the statute, because not within its spirit nor within the intention of its makers.”

The appeals court to which Briggs will plead for his job should remember that bit of legal wisdom. Otherwise, a veteran educator will have spent his career teaching students some flawed lessons about their government.