Former Alaska state workers sue, saying they were unconstitutionally fired

Former Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar speaking at a press conference on Thursday. Bakalar is one of three plaintiffs in lawsuits filed by the ACLU of Alaska against the Dunleavy administration, claiming that she was illegally terminated by the governor. Former Alaska Psychiatric Institute Staff Psychiatrist Dr. John Belville (right) is another plaintiff. (Photo by Wesley Early, Alaska Public Media)

Former Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar speaking at a press conference on Thursday. Bakalar is one of three plaintiffs in lawsuits filed by the ACLU of Alaska against the Dunleavy administration, claiming that she was illegally terminated by the governor. Former Alaska Psychiatric Institute staff psychiatrist Dr. John Bellville (right) is another plaintiff. (Photo by Wesley Early/Alaska Public Media)

A lawyer and two doctors are suing the state, saying Gov. Mike Dunleavy fired them for unconstitutional reasons. The American Civil Liberties Union of Alaska filed the lawsuits Thursday.

The two lawsuits say the workers lost their jobs over constitutionally-protected speech.

John Bellville and Anthony Blanford filed one of the lawsuits. They’re doctors who worked at Alaska Psychiatric Institute. But then Dunleavy’s chief of staff Tuckerman Babcock asked for resignation letters from them and more than 800 other at-will state workers. Bellville described how he handled it.

“When I received the request for resignation, I actually put it in the trash as I thought it was a mistake,” he said. “I’m a doctor, not a politician. My job was not political. It was about caring for patients, so I didn’t think anything would come of it.”

Administration officials said they wouldn’t accept every resignation letter, if employees made it clear they were committed to Dunleavy’s agenda. But Bellville and Blanford both lost their jobs when they refused to submit the letters. Bellville explained why.

“As a doctor, I can’t ethically put Tuckerman Babcock’s political views ahead of my patients,” he said. “Because I can’t. I won’t pledge to it. I wouldn’t pledge to it, and I was fired for that.”

The lawsuits name Dunleavy, Babcock and the state as defendants. The Alaska Department of Law isn’t commenting on the lawsuits.

The other lawsuit filed in Anchorage Superior Court was from Libby Bakalar, a former assistant attorney general who handled some of the state’s more complex legal cases. She received promotions and positive evaluations from her supervisors. She lost her job within minutes of Dunleavy becoming governor. And she said the only reason is that she has publicly expressed her political views.

“As state employees, and especially as attorneys, our ethical duty is first and foremost to the Constitution, not to a political agenda,” she said. “But the Constitution protects us as well, and that is why I am bringing this litigation.”

Bakalar maintains a blog, One Hot Mess Alaska, that includes frank discussions of her personal life, posts intended to be humorous, and criticism of President Donald Trump. But she noted that she has successfully advocated for state positions that differ from her private political views.

“And I am not here for myself alone,” she said. “I’m here to vindicate the rights of all nonpolitical state employees to speak their minds in their own voices in their personal capacities — to not live in fear that expressing themselves in their voices on social media or attending a political rally on their own time will cost them their job.”

Bakalar’s lawsuit notes that after receiving a complaint, the state hired an outside lawyer to investigate whether Bakalar’s blog violated ethical standards. The lawyer concluded that it didn’t.

The lawsuit also noted a second assistant attorney general, Ruth Botstein, also lost her job. Botstein successfully represented the state before the U.S. Supreme Court in a case to increase access to federal lands in Alaska. The lawsuit said Botstein received an offer to reinstate her in her job after an Alaska’s Energy Desk report on her situation. Botstein said the discussion she had with the state didn’t amount to an offer to reinstate her. She no longer works for the state.

Bakalar, Bellville and Blanford are at-will employees who don’t have the same legal protections as unionized state workers. But ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker said they are not political appointees, since they didn’t make policy and were appointed for their education and expertise. And he said they are protected by the federal and state constitutions from being fired for expressing or refusing to express political views.

“One of the amazing things about the United States is that the government works for us, and that when one goes to serve the public and work for the government, we don’t check our free speech rights at the door,” Decker said.

Decker said that Babcock’s resignation request amounted to requiring a pledge of loyalty to Dunleavy. He cited Babcock’s statement to the Anchorage Daily News that workers submitting resignations would send the message they want to work on the administration’s agenda.

Babcock was the chairman of the Alaska Republican Party immediately before Dunleavy named him as his chief of staff.

“Alaskans do not want their doctor, their pharmacist, their Veterans Affairs worker putting a partisan agenda ahead of them,” Decker said. “Party bosses making political allegiance a de facto requirement for government service is the root of a corrupt spoils system America has worked to eradicate for over a century. We cannot let Mr. Babcock and Gov. Dunleavy bring it back.”

It’s not yet clear how many of the at-will workers had their resignations accepted or otherwise lost their jobs since Dunleavy became governor.

Alaska Public Media’s Wesley Early contributed to this report.

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