State will pay $495,000 to two psychiatrists Dunleavy fired from API

A man stands at a podium with two men and a woman standing behind him
ACLU of Alaska Executive Director Joshua Decker announces lawsuits in 2019 against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his then-Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock. Behind Decker are Dr. John Bellville, ACLU Legal Director Stephen Koteff and Libby Bakalar. (ACLU photo)

It will cost the state of Alaska nearly half a million dollars to settle with two doctors Gov. Mike Dunleavy fired from the state psychiatric hospital for refusing to take what they deemed a political loyalty pledge. 

The state has agreed to pay Anthony Blanford $220,000 and John Bellville $275,000 to cover lost wages, other losses and attorney fees.

A federal district court judge ruled in October that Dunleavy and his first chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, violated the First Amendment rights of the two psychiatrists who were fired from the Alaska Psychiatric Institute. The state appealed. The settlement announced Wednesday ends the case, with no admission of fault.

But the agreement does include a passage that says the defendants — Dunleavy, Babcock and the state — agree that the state can’t fire employees for their political views unless they are policymakers, or in other limited circumstances.

Typically, new governors secure the resignations of department heads and other political appointees.

Dunleavy went further. He demanded resignation letters from hundreds of state workers. The employees had to express an interest in staying on to keep their jobs.

Judge John Sedwick said the Dunleavy administration essentially required a commitment of political support to its agenda in return for continued employment. He also found that Dunleavy and Babcock were personally responsible for violating the psychiatrists’ First Amendment rights. The settlement agreement, though, says the state will pay the money, subject to the Legislature’s approval. Some are already questioning whether it’s right for the state to pay to settle claims against Dunleavy and Babcock.

In a separate case, Sedwick also ruled last month in favor of former assistant attorney general Libby Bakalar, whom Dunleavy fired on his first day in office. Damages in her case have not been decided.

RELATED: Juneau attorney reflects on her years-long First Amendment case

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Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent for Alaska Public Media. She reports from the U.S. Capitol and from Anchorage. Reach her at lruskin@alaskapublic.org.

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