State psychiatric doctors are not political appointees

Doctors at the Alaska Psychiatric Institute are there to help make people think and feel better about themselves, to overcome the troubles that disrupt their lives and sometimes endanger the public.

They are not there to make a governor look good, or to pledge allegiance to whatever agenda a new governor wants to promote.

Good that a federal judge could see the difference.

The judge last Friday ruled that two psychiatrists were wrongfully fired for political reasons when Gov. Mike Dunleavy took office in 2018. Their offense, according to the governor’s team, was that they refused to resign from their jobs, reapply and put in writing that they wanted to work on Dunleavy’s agenda — whatever that may be, and whatever it may have to do with psychiatric care.

While acknowledging that new governors can pick and choose, hire and fire policymakers — which would include commissioners, their deputies, division directors and others — U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick said the rehire prerequisite for the two doctors was “political.”

He wrote in his decision that demanding their resignations “undisputedly went beyond what was customary during an administration transition and extended to employees not occupying policymaking positions … (it) demonstrates that the purpose went beyond routine employment action.”

Sedwick said the governor and his chief of staff essentially wanted a “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 … were fired.”

The judge’s ruling was no surprise, except maybe to the governor, his staff and compliant attorneys who thought a political loyalty pledge should apply to psychiatric doctors the same as political appointees who are routinely rewarded, or punished, after an election.

The attorney representing the two doctors called the judge’s decision “a significant vindication for the free speech rights of all state employees, all public employees.”

Yes, it was. All that remains — unless the governor wants to appeal the righteous decision — is to decide damages. Because the judge ruled that the firings were not part of their official duties, the governor and his then-chief of staff could be held personally liable for damages.

Maybe if the judge is reluctant to order the governor and his former staffer to write a personal check, he could sentence the two men to community service at the state psychiatric hospital to learn just how little politics has to do with anyone’s life there.

—Wrangell Sentinel


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