Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy and his former chief of staff violated the U.S. Constitution and Alaska Constitution when they sought the resignations of about 800 at-will state employees at the start of Dunleavy’s administration, a federal judge said in a written order Friday.
“Defendants’ demand for the resignations of over 800 at-will employees, with acceptance or rejection of each resignation dependent upon an accompanying statement of commitment to state employment under the incoming administration, is sufficiently analogous as to its purpose and effect to be considered an unconstitutional patronage practice,” Judge John Sedwick said.
The two men may be held personally liable and could be forced to pay financial and other penalties. Further legal action will decide those penalties, which could include an injunction limiting the ability of future governors to replace state workers during post-election transitions.
Friday’s order came almost three years after Alaska Psychiatric Institute doctors Anthony Blanford and John Bellville were fired by the Dunleavy administration and sued in response.
The two were among hundreds of state employees who were asked to submit letters of resignation during the transition from former Gov. Bill Walker.
Dunleavy’s chief of staff at the time, Tuckerman Babcock, said the letters were intended to confirm that employees wanted to work on Dunleavy’s agenda.
Blanford and Bellville refused to submit letters.
“The state of Alaska hired me for my expertise, not my political allegiance,” Blanford wrote in a letter to the editor.
After the two were fired, they sued the state, Dunleavy and Babcock with the help of the Alaska chapter of the ACLU. (A third employee, attorney Libby Bakalar, also sued but later split off her case from the two doctors. Her case is still pending.)
Stephen Koteff, the ACLU’s legal director and the lead attorney for the plaintiffs, said on Friday that the ruling sends an “unmistakable” message.
“The state has argued from the outset that this was routine and that there was nothing political about it. The court saw right through that, just as the rest of the public has for the last two and a half years,” he said.
Brewster Jamieson, an attorney representing Dunleavy in the case, said he was still reviewing the order and declined to comment.
Jamieson deferred questions to the office of the governor, who deferred questions to the Department of Law, where attorney and spokeswoman Grace Lee said the agency is reviewing the order and considering its options.
New Alaska governors typically change high-level political staff, requesting letters of resignation as a formality during the transition process, but Dunleavy’s requests went deeper than typical, Sedwick concluded.
When coupled with the wording of official documents and public statements, the governor and Babcock “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,” Friday’s order said.
Unusually, Sedwick concluded that the men’s actions were so far beyond normal that they cannot be considered part of their normal duties as state officials. That may make them personally liable.
“That’s what makes this case significant,” Koteff said.
“The resignation demand was laden with political freight, and the effect was to force scores of public employees to compromise their political beliefs by signing that resignation request,” he said.
Under a timeline laid out in Friday’s order, the attorneys involved in the case have two weeks to confer and determine next steps. If they are unable to agree, the court could hold a trial to determine the amount of damages.
In Bakalar’s separate case, which is also overseen by Sedwick, a final legal filing is due Oct. 25 and an order is possible by the end of the year.