Judge rules Gov. Dunleavy’s ‘loyalty pledge’ firings of 2 state employees violated US, Alaska Constitutions

The ACLU of Alaska and three former state employees announced a lawsuit filed against Gov. Mike...
The ACLU of Alaska and three former state employees announced a lawsuit filed against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his chief of staff back in 2019.(KTUU)
Published: Oct. 8, 2021 at 6:58 PM AKDT
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ANCHORAGE, Alaska (KTUU) - A federal judge has ruled in favor of two state psychiatrists, fired by Gov. Mike Dunleavy’s administration when they refused to resign and re-apply for their jobs in what was seen as an unprecedented, wide-sweeping request for loyalty by the incoming governor.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick found in an order Friday that the two psychiatrists’ First Amendment rights were violated when they were fired after they failed to resign. Dunleavy’s administration had sought the resignation of about 800 at-will employees at the start of his term as governor. Sedwick found the move violated the Alaska Constitution and U.S. Constitution.

Dr. Anthony Blanford was the chief of psychiatry at Alaska Psychiatric Institute, Dr. John Bellville was a psychiatrist there. Blanford wrote a letter to the editor indicating that he wanted to keep his job at API, but would not submit a “symbolic gesture of deference” in order to keep it. On Dec. 3, 2018, the day Dunleavy took office, Tuckerman Babcock, who was chair of Dunleavy’s transition team at the time, notified both doctors that they were terminated, effective at noon that day.

The two men and a third state employee sued Dunleavy over their firings in early 2019, but the third person, attorney Elizabeth Bakalar, later split her case off from the two doctors.

Incoming governors routinely ask for the resignations of policy-making employees in the government, usually around 250 employees, court records show. Babcock sent a memorandum to most of the state’s at-will employees, requesting resignations.

“Governor-Elect Dunleavy is committed to bringing his own brand of energy and direction to state government,” the memo read in part. “It is not Governor-Elect Dunleavy’s intent to minimize the hard work and effort put forth by current employees, but rather to ensure that any Alaskan who wishes to serve is given proper and fair consideration.”

The memorandum included a resignation letter and a line where they could indicate if they wanted to be considered for their current position “with the new administration.”

In his ruling, Sedwick found that the memorandum, resignation letter, and Babcock’s description of the memorandum in following news coverage were “affirming that the purpose of the mass resignation request was to have employees commit to working for the Dunleavy administration and its agenda in particular, rather than just staying in place as part of the usual bureaucracy.”

“With due consideration of the case law discussed in the preceding sections, the Court finds that the First Amendment violation in these circumstances was clearly established and would have been known to any reasonable government official,” the order reads. “It is beyond debate based on Supreme Court precedent that it is unconstitutional to require non-policymaking employees to signal a commitment to a political agenda in order to retain their jobs.”

At the time, Babcock, who went on to be Dunleavy’s chief of staff for a period of time, said that the request for resignations was not intended to reduce the size of government.

“It is a reminder to us all that as at-will employees, we serve the public, and the public elects the chief executive, the governor,” he wrote in a statement to the media.

Dunleavy’s defense team had argued that their firings were due to failure to fulfill their job duties. The court disagreed.

“It cannot fairly be characterized as simply a personnel grievance,” Sedwick wrote in the order. “Their refusal to comply was rooted in their concern about protecting the integrity of patient care at API from political interests, which clearly is a concern that would be of importance to the general public.”

Stephen Koteff, legal director at the American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska, was lead attorney for the two plaintiffs. He said on Friday that the ruling is a “significant vindication” for First Amendment rights.

“The court today has affirmed the principal that a citizen does not surrender their First Amendment protection just because they choose to serve the public,” he said.

Koteff said Friday’s order showed the administration’s resignation requests were “laden with political freight.”

“The unmistakable message with the requirement to resign was that employees had to toe the line of the governor’s agenda or be fired,” he said. “And the outcome was scores of public employees had to compromise their beliefs just to keep their jobs. Today the court corrected this problem that’s been festering in state government for the last two and a half years.”

Grace Lee, a Department of Law attorney and spokesperson, said the department was “currently reviewing the order and considering all of our options.”

Plaintiffs are allowed to seek damages from individuals who violate their rights as state actors, Koteff explained. Determining damages is the next phase of the case.

According to the order, attorneys involved in the case have two weeks to confer on the next steps, which would include awarding damages to the plaintiffs.

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