Judge rules firing violated state employee's free speech rights

JUNEAU (AP) — A federal judge on Jan. 20 sided with a former state attorney who alleged she was wrongly fired over political opinions expressed on a personal blog.

U.S. District Court Judge John Sedwick ruled that Elizabeth Bakalar’s December 2018 firing violated her free speech and rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.

In October, Sedwick sided with two doctors at the state’s psychiatric hospital in Anchorage who had declined to submit resignation letters and also were fired, same as Bakalar, as the new administration of Gov. Mike Dunleavy took over state government.

Bakalar was an attorney with the Alaska Department of Law who handled election-related cases and was assigned to advise or represent state agencies in high-profile or complex matters. She began a blog in 2014 that focused on issues such as lifestyle, parenting and politics but began blogging more about politics and then-President Donald Trump after his 2016 election. She also commented about Trump on Twitter, with her name listed as the Twitter handle.

Shortly after Dunleavy’s election in 2018, the chair of his transition team and later his chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, sent a memo to a broad swath of state employees requesting they submit their resignations along with a statement of interest in continuing to work for the new administration. The request was derided by attorneys for Bakalar and others as a demand for a “loyalty pledge.”

“To keep their jobs employees had to actually offer up a resignation with an accompanying statement of interest in continuing with the new administration and then hope that the incoming administration would reject the resignation,” Sedwick wrote.

Babcock said he fired Bakalar because he considered the tone of her resignation letter to be unprofessional, the court order said. But Sedwick said Babcock did not accept the resignation of an assistant attorney general who used the same wording he had found objectionable when used by Bakalar.

While every lawyer in the Department of Law received the memo, just two — Bakalar and another attorney who had been critical of Trump on social media — had their resignation letters accepted, according to Sedwick’s decision.

Sedwick said given Bakalar’s position “and the public nature of her political commentary, it would not have been unreasonable for state officials to consider her speech a disruption to the Division of Election’s operations, warranting adverse employment action. Indeed, this was a growing concern to her supervisors within Department of Law.”

But the defendants, “who made the decision to fire plaintiff without consultation, failed to show that they had any awareness of this particular concern, or that they acted in response to it rather than a dislike of her personal views,” he wrote.

Mark Choate, an attorney for Bakalar, said his side would seek damages and an order that would bar any similar memos being sent in the future.


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