Alaska governor unlawfully fired state lawyer critical of Trump: judge

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Alaska Governor Mike Dunleavy speaks at the Petroleum Club in Anchorage, Alaska, U.S. January 15, 2020. REUTERS/Yereth Rosen

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  • Lawyer's personal blog posts didn't affect her state job, judge ruled
  • Governor's office violated free-speech rights by firing her

(Reuters) - Alaska Governor Michael Dunleavy, a Republican, and his chief of staff unlawfully fired an accomplished state lawyer after she harshly criticized former Republican President Donald Trump on her personal blog, a federal judge has ruled.

U.S. District Judge John Sedwick in Anchorage on Thursday said Elizabeth Bakalar's firing violated her free-speech rights and the state had not shown that her posts, such as one calling Trump a "treasonous, semi-literate, lecherous oligarch," ever affected her work as an assistant attorney general.

Bakalar's lawyer, Mark Choate, did not immediately respond to a request for comment on Friday.

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The Alaska Department of Law in a statement said it was disappointed with Sedwick's ruling, which "would strictly limit the ability of future Governors to hold employees in sensitive positions accountable for actions that ultimately affect their work for the people of Alaska."

Dunleavy took office in 2018 and required many at-will state employees to officially submit resignations while explaining why they should be able keep their jobs. Bakalar, who specialized in election law, was one of only two lawyers in the attorney general's office who was not re-hired, according to court filings.

Dunleavy's chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, who is a defendant in the case, testified that he decided to fire Bakalar because he did not like the tone of her resignation letter, and was only vaguely aware of her blog.

But Sedwick on Thursday found that Bakalar's strong opinions were likely the motivating factor in her termination, and Dunleavy's office "could not have reasonably believed that it was legally appropriate to make political loyalty a requirement of plaintiff’s job."

Sedwick granted summary judgment to Bakalar and asked both sides to update him within two weeks on outstanding issues, including damages she may be owed.

The case is Bakalar v. Dunleavy, U.S. District Court for the District of Alaska, No. 3:19-cv-00025.

For Bakalar: Mark Choate of Choate Law Firm; Adam Hansen of Apollo Law

For the defendants: Michael Baylous and Peter Partnow of Lane Powell

(Editor's Note: This article has been updated to include a statement from the Alaska Department of Law.)

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Dan Wiessner (@danwiessner) reports on labor and employment and immigration law, including litigation and policy making. He can be reached at daniel.wiessner@thomsonreuters.com.