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Federal judge rules Dunleavy, Babcock not immune in lawsuits over firing of employees

ACLU of Alaska Legal Director Stephen Koteff speaks at a news conference announcing lawsuits against Gov. Mike Dunleavy, his Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock, and the State of Alaska on Thursday, Jan. 10, 2019. Behind Koteff are two of the three plaintiffs, Dr. John Bellville, left, and Libby Bakalar, right, state employees who were terminated after Gov. Dunleavy took office. Also behind Koteff is Joshua Decker, ACLU of Alaska executive director. (Loren Holmes / ADN)

JUNEAU — U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick ruled Tuesday that a pair of lawsuits brought by the ACLU against Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, may continue as originally filed.

The state of Alaska, using contracted lawyers, had sought to declare Dunleavy and Babcock immune from lawsuit in the cases, which allege the state — under their instructions — illegally fired former assistant attorney general Libby Bakalar and Alaska Psychiatric Institute doctors William Blanford and John Bellville.

Had Sedwick ruled otherwise, Dunleavy and Babcock might have been dropped from the cases, leaving the ACLU to pursue its claims of illegal firing against the state alone. With the judge’s order, the case will continue against the state plus Dunleavy and Babcock as individuals.

The order says in part that “given the types of claims brought by plaintiffs and the allegations contained in their complaints, qualified immunity cannot protect defendants Dunleavy and Babcock from having to participate in the litigation, including the discovery process.”

Under the rules used in federal court, plaintiffs can force a defendant to give them evidence they can use to build a case. That evidence, obtained during what’s known as the discovery phase of the trial, might include documentation, interviews or other physical items.

In May, the state’s lawyers asked that Dunleavy and Babcock be granted “qualified immunity," a status that generally prohibits cases against individual government officials when acting on behalf of the government.

Tuesday’s order does not prohibit Sedwick from granting the governor and his chief of staff that status at a later date.

Dunleavy, Babcock and the state are being represented by the Anchorage law firm of Clapp, Peterson, Tiemessen, Thorsness & Johnson. Attorney Linda Johnson did not immediately respond to a voicemail message seeking comment. Bakalar and the others are being represented by the Alaska chapter of the American Civil Liberties Union. The ACLU declined to make a statement.

A status conference on the cases has been set for 3:30 p.m. Aug. 9 in Anchorage.

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