The Alaska branch of the American Civil Liberties Union announced today that it’s filing two lawsuits arguing Gov. Michael J. Dunleavy and Chief of Staff Tuckerman Babcock violated the constitution in the firing of three employees when the Republican took office.
The lawsuits stem from the mass resignation requests sent to at-will and non-union state employees—a scope far broader than traditional transitions from one governor to the next—as well as public comments by Babcock explaining the effort was to ensure the targeted employees agreed with Dunleavy’s political agenda. The lawsuits essentially argue that Babcock’s public comments prove Dunleavy’s lawful mass resignation request was effectively an unconstitutional demand for loyalty.
One of the lawsuits deals with former Assistant Attorney General Libby Bakalar, who’s been targeted by conservatives for her work on her personal blog “One Hot Mess Alaska.” She sent a resignation letter, but noted it was against her will.
The second represents former Alaska Psychiatric Institute Director of Psychiatry Dr. Anthony Blanford, who penned an editorial explaining why he wouldn’t submit a letter of resignation that effectively asked him to sign onto Dunleavy’s vague cuts-focused agenda, and former Alaska Psychiatric Institute Staff Psychiatrist Dr. John Bellville. Neither submitted the letters.
Comments made by Babcock, who formerly was the chair of the Alaska Republican Party, are central to the lawsuits. The following is one of the most critical quotes and is referenced throughout both legal filings:
The ACLU of Alaska argues Babcock’s public explanation of the letters to the Anchorage Daily News constitutes an unconstitutional attempt to coerce speech from non-policymaking employees.
“The right to free speech includes both the right to speak freely and the right to refrain from speaking at all,” the filing representing the API doctors explains. “The right not to speak also prohibits the state from compelling non-policymaking public employees to pledge allegiance to any particular brand of government.”
The announcement by the ACLU also points to the 1943 U.S. Supreme Court Case West Virginia State Board of Education v. Barnette, which found the First Amendment protects students from being required to salute the flag or say the Pledge of Allegiance in school. The lawsuit frequently describes the efforts by Dunleavy and Babcock as forcing a “pledge of allegiance” from state employees.
The letters that were sent to the employees didn’t include any reference to signing onto Dunleavy’s political agenda as a requirement for employment, which would seem to suggest that without Babcock’s comments there might not be as strong of a case.
This isn’t the first time that a new Republican administration’s priorities have run into legal trouble because of public comments made by its members.
Early in 2017, one iteration of President Donald J. Trump’s travel ban was blocked by a judge in part because of “plainly worded statements” from Stephen Miller, Rudy Giuliani and Trump himself that “betray the Executive Order’s stated secular purpose.”