Neb. court upholds firing of trooper for Klan link

Associated Press/February 27, 2009

Omaha, Nebraska - The Nebraska Supreme Court on Friday upheld the firing of a State Patrol trooper for his ties to the Ku Klux Klan.

Justice John Gerrard wrote that Robert Henderson voluntarily associated with an organization that uses violence and terror to oppose the state's founding principles of equality and tolerance.

Henderson, a trooper for 18 years, was dismissed in 2006 after the patrol discovered he had joined a racist group. He told an investigator he joined the Knights Party - which has described itself as the most active Klan organization in the United States - in June 2004.

An arbitrator said Henderson was wrongly fired, but Lancaster County District Judge Jeffre Cheuvront overturned that decision.

Henderson's attorney, Vincent Valentino, argued to the high court that arbitrators, not judges, have the final say.

Gerrard wrote that while it's not the role of a court, generally, to set aside an arbitrator's decision, it is permissible for a court to "refuse to enforce an arbitration award that is contrary to a public policy that is explicit, well defined, and dominant."

Justice Kenneth Stephan wrote in a dissenting opinion that the courts overstepped their bounds by overturning the arbitrator. Stephan said Henderson had kept his beliefs well hidden while on the job and there was no evidence those beliefs interfered with his impartial enforcement of the law.

Gerrard noted that the state's admission to the Union in 1867 was dependent on a "fundamental public policy" that Nebraska would adhere to the principle that "laws should be enforced without regard to race."

"It is beyond dispute that he willingly joined the Knights Party, knowing that he was effectively joining the Ku Klux Klan," Gerrard wrote. "In joining, he endorsed a point of view that is completely antithetical to the principles of Nebraska law that he was bound by oath to enforce."

To associate with the KKK is to associate with a legacy of hatred, bigotry, violence and terror, Gerrard wrote.

"One cannot simultaneously wear the badge of the Nebraska State Patrol and the robe of a Klansman without degrading what that badge represents when worn by any officer."

Henderson's continued employment would compromise the public's confidence in law enforcement in a state that outlaws racial profiling, the opinion said. "It is abhorrent and cannot be tolerated."

Henderson told an investigator that he joined the Knights Party to vent his frustrations about his separation with his wife, who left him for a Hispanic man. Henderson posted four messages to the Knights' Web site, according to the investigator's report.

Arbitrator Paul Caffera later overturned Henderson's firing. He said Henderson was entitled to his First Amendment rights of free speech and that the state violated the troopers' contract.

Caffera ordered the patrol to reinstate Henderson within 60 days and pay him his back wages. But the state appealed that decision and won in Lancaster County District Court.

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