Ex-Alaska Psychiatric Institute docs win federal court victory in challenge to Dunleavy ‘loyalty pledge’

The Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. (Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Two psychiatrists who were fired from the Alaska Psychiatric Institute in 2018 have won their case in U.S. District Court against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his former chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock.

Judge John Sedwick ruled Friday that Dunleavy violated the First Amendment rights of state employees by requiring them to submit what’s been characterized as a political loyalty pledge.

“The court has corrected a problem that’s been festering in this state government for the last two and a half years,” said Steve Koteff of the Alaska Civil Liberties Union, the lead attorney for the psychiatrists. “Now we know that the court has concluded that Gov. Dunleavy and Tuckerman Babcock did violate the constitutional rights of all state employees that they asked to resign.”

Dunleavy, just before he came into office, required some 800 professional state employees to submit their resignations, along with a letter expressing interest in continuing to serve the new governor if they wanted to keep their jobs. This pledge was required not just of high-level staffers of the executive branch but to positions such as state accountants, pharmacists, lawyers and geologists.

Drs. Anthony Blanford and John Bellville, psychiatrists at the state mental hospital in Anchorage, refused. Babcock fired them on the governor’s first day in office in December 2018.

Judge Sedwick found that Dunleavy’s demand essentially required state employees to support the governor’s political agenda. For employees who complied and kept their job, Sedwick said, it amounted to a warning.

“This warning would be expected to chill employees’ political affiliations and activities that officials would consider subversive to the administration’s agenda,” his ruling says.

Sedwick granted the psychiatrists’ motion for summary judgment, meaning they won the case without having to go to trial.  He ordered further discussions to determine what compensation they should receive. The judgment is against Dunleavy and Babcock personally, and against the governor in his official capacity.

The governor’s office referred questions about the case to the Department of Law. A spokeswoman said the Department is considering its options.

Former Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar has filed a similar lawsuit that’s also before Judge Sedwick.

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Liz Ruskin covers Alaska issues in Washington as the network's D.C. correspondent. She was born in Anchorage and is a West High grad. She has degrees from the University of Washington and the University of Missouri School of Journalism in Columbia. She previously worked at the Homer News, the Anchorage Daily News and the Washington bureau of McClatchy Newspapers. She also freelanced for several years from the U.K. and Japan, in print and radio. Liz has been APRN’s Washington, D.C. correspondent since October 2013. She's @lruskin on Twitter. She welcomes your news tips at lruskin (at) alaskapublic (dot) org  | About Liz

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