Most everyone at the Supreme Court on Tuesday agreed that the First Amendment protects a public employee in a non-political job from being fired or demoted for supporting a political candidate.

But in a case alternatively described as "bizarre" and more "like a law school hypothetical," the question was what happens when the boss retaliates against an employee on the mistaken belief that the employee has asserted such support, reports the Washington Post.

By the end of the hour-long argument, it seemed clear that Paterson, N.J., police officer Jeffrey Heffernan would have had a better case if he had endorsed his friend running for mayor rather than maintained his neutrality.

He was a detective in the police department, assigned to a division headed by the police chief. His boss supported the incumbent mayor in the 2006 election; Heffernan was a close friend of former police chief Lawrence Spagnola, who was the challenger.

One day, while on his own time, Heffernan was observed by another officer picking up a yard sign at the Spagnola campaign headquarters. The sign was not for him, Heffernan explained later, but for his bed­ridden mother (Heffernan didn't even live in Paterson and was ineligible to vote.)

Nevertheless, Heffernan was demoted to patrol officer the next day and told it was because of his "overt" involvement in a political campaign.

Justice Samuel A. Alito Jr. said that Heffernan's case might be what the court likes to call a "one-off."

"How often will it be the case that an employee will be unable to allege any expression or any association that is protected by the First Amendment?" he asked. "It seems to me quite rare."

The case is Heffernan v. City of Paterson.