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Judge sides with psychiatrists who alleged wrongful firing

October 9, 2021 GMT

JUNEAU, Alaska (AP) — A U.S. judge on Friday sided with two psychiatrists who said they were wrongfully fired when Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office.

Anthony Blanford and John Bellville, who worked at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute, declined to submit resignation letters requested shortly after Dunleavy’s 2018 election by the chair of his transition team and later his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock. Blanford and Bellville subsequently were fired.

Attorneys for the men in court records argued that Babcock in demanding resignations from a broad swath of public employees “unquestionably sought to compel speech in support of Governor-elect Dunleavy’s political agenda.” They said the request sought to elicit “a pledge of loyalty” from employees.

In a decision Friday, U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick said the nature of the demand was “political.”

He wrote that the scope of the demand for resignations, “which undisputedly went beyond what was customary during an administration transition, and extended to employees not occupying policymaking positions, demonstrates that the purpose went beyond routine employment action.”

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“They were not actually asking at-will employees to resign en mass,” he continued. “Rather, they were asking employees to offer up their job to the new administration’s express approval on a basis left unclear, but with suggestive political underpinnings.”

The case was brought against Dunleavy, Babcock and the state. An email seeking comment from Michael Bruce Baylous, one of the attorneys listed as representing them, was not immediately returned. Dunleavy spokesperson Jeff Turner referred a request for comment to the state Department of Law. Grace Lee, a department spokesperson, by email said the department was reviewing the order and considering its options.

Babcock is no longer with the administration.

Attorneys for the defendants, in a court filing, said the “overwhelming majority” of the those who received resignation requests were retained “after they tendered their resignations and indicated an interest in continued service.”

After Blanford and Bellville were let go, “the State offered to continue each doctor in his position, asking only that each say he wanted to remain. Dr. Blanford and Dr. Bellville refused to say this,” according to the filing from attorneys Baylous and Brewster Jamieson.

Sedwick said the defendants “were requiring an ostensible commitment of political support, or at least deference, in return for continued employment, the effect of which was to either interfere with or chill employees’ exercise of protected First Amendment rights. Those that did not want to signal such a commitment, like Plaintiffs, were fired.”

He asked the parties to confer on any remaining issues.

Stephen Koteff, an attorney with the ACLU of Alaska Foundation representing Blanford and Bellville, said one issue to resolve would be damages.

Koteff called Sedwick’s decision “a significant vindication for the free speech rights of state employees, all public employees for that matter.”

He said Blanford had returned to work at the facility with a contractor following his firing.

Sedwick is also assigned to a separate but similar case brought by former Department of Law attorney Elizabeth Bakalar.