After winning, Juneau attorney reflects on her years-long First Amendment case

A woman with a book open on her lap
State attorney Libby Bakalar cites a statute governing the appeal process for election certifications and recounts during a press teleconference at the Division of Elections office in downtown Juneau on Nov. 26, 2018. A federal judge ruled that Gov. Mike Dunleavy violated her First Amendment rights when he fired her on the day he was sworn into office. (Jeremy Hsieh/KTOO)

Recently, a federal district court judge ruled that Gov. Mike Dunleavy violated the First Amendment rights of a Juneau attorney he fired on the day he was sworn into office in December of 2018.  

Rashah McChesney sat down with former assistant attorney general Libby Bakalar to talk about what the ruling means. 

The following transcript has been edited for length and clarity. 

Rashah McChesney: This is kind of a complex timeline, so let’s walk through it. You have this blog, One Hot Mess, for several years. At one point, you start writing about former President Trump, and another attorney and the state complains. The state investigates you and your blog and finds no wrongdoing. 

Then Gov. Dunleavy gets elected, and he and his former chief of staff, Tuckerman Babcock, send out these demands for resignations to 800-something employees in the state — including you. Something that’s recently deemed unconstitutional. You resign. Gov. Dunleavy gets sworn in at noon on Dec. 3, and you find out 20 minutes later that you’ve been fired.

That’s more than three years fighting for this. What was that process like?

Libby Bakalar: You know, it was really slow and grueling, to be honest. I mean, it wasn’t like every single day, something different was happening in the case or anything. It’s just, it’s a long time to be in limbo with something like this. You know, I think I wrote about this in my blog — it just a takes a very long time to prove this kind of point. When I filed this case, I was like, I’ll be surprised if this is resolved within Dunleavy’s first term of office. So I fully expected it to take pretty much as long as it took. It’s just part of being a litigant.

Rashah McChesney: One of the reasons that Tuckerman Babcock said that he did it was because he didn’t like your resignation letter. I’m wondering if you could tell me a little bit about that letter and sort of describe what you were thinking when you wrote it. 

Tuckerman Babcock, Governor Mike Dunleavy and Ben Stevens pictured today in Anchorage. (Photo courtesy of Governor Mike Dunleavy’s office)

Libby Bakalar: Well, so the attorney general at the time, Jahna Lindemuth, gave everybody a template to write the resignation letters on. So every attorney who submitted the resignation letter used the same template. I may have added something like, “I’m doing this under duress,” or “I’m doing it because, you know, Mr. Babcock said I was going to be terminated if I didn’t do it.” I kind of wanted to make it clear that my resignation wasn’t voluntary. But that language about the resignation being involuntary was in the template. And as Judge [John] Sedwick said, another attorney who used the exact same language … that resignation letter wasn’t accepted. So that was just something that — I think that we found completely not credible. And I think when you read the letter, you can see it’s completely professional and completely anodyne. So, you know, that was clearly pretextual and Sedwick saw right through that.

Rashah McChesney: When you submitted that resignation letter did you expect that they were going to accept it and that you were going to lose your job? 

I think in the back of my mind, I was worried about losing my job, but I knew that what I was doing was legal. That’s the thing, right? I knew my work was good. I knew my relationships with my clients and colleagues were good. My work was beyond reproach, right? And I knew I had the constitutional right to speak on these matters. And so my mistake was assuming that these folks were going to comply with the law, right? And I think I must have thought that because, you know, when they called me and told me about this, that I was fired, I was like, I picked up the phone, and I said, “Are you calling and telling me… You’re firing me? And like, yeah, sorry, basically.” So it kind of, you know, wasn’t like this huge shock, I guess. But I think deep down, I was like, they couldn’t really do this, because this is against the law, right? And they did it anyway. And we’re, you know, we’re a firm of lawyers. So I thought, “There’s no way that these lawyers are going to carry out this illegal order, from Tuckerman Babcock,” and I was wrong about that. I was wrong about that. So I think I was surprised on some level.

Rashah McChesney: This is a little bit of a rabbit hole, but there was another lawsuit against the governor’s administration, for demanding those resignations. These psychiatrists from Alaska Psychiatric Institute sued over the same thing, over being asked to resign. 

The Alaska Psychiatric Institute in Anchorage. (Alaska Department of Health and Social Services)

Libby Bakalar: Right. The ACLU filed a case on their behalf of at the same time that they filed my case. And in that case, the psychiatrist plaintiffs did not submit resignation letters at all, and because of that, the judge had a different analysis. There’s these two lines of free speech cases like this. And one of them has to do with patronage schemes, and one of them has to do with policymaking and disruption at work. And the former line of cases is what the psychiatrist case was about, because they did not submit those resignation letters. And so the judge was able to find in that case, that the entire scheme itself, the resignation letter scheme itself, the very act of submitting of … was essentially an unconstitutional patronage. 

Rashah McChesney: So, they were just on some kind of parallel track this whole time?

Libby Bakalar: The judge declined to consolidate those two cases early on, the ACLU asked to have them consolidated and for a number of reasons, he denied that motion. And I think when you see the two orders, in those two cases, you can kind of see why. There are a lot of different issues. Obviously the psychiatrists, they didn’t have this blog. There wasn’t this whole question of whether they were policymakers there wasn’t, there was just kind of some different issues going on, different fact patterns. 

So yeah, they were similar in some ways. But in a way, it was the best possible outcome, in my opinion that these two cases were decided separately and on different grounds. Because what the judge did, essentially within one case, he invalidated the resignation demand scheme on its face. And in my case, he invalidated it as applied to me. It’s sort of a double whammy. I think in the end, it was good because we got those two separate rulings that essentially validated the illegalality of this entire scheme, both as it was conceived and as it was applied.

Rashah McChesney: Now that it’s been ruled that they fired you unconstitutionally – how do they pay for it? 

Libby Bakalar: So that’s yeah, that’s the question. It’s either gonna be through a settlement or a jury trial. And so this is kind of like the analogy would be the sentencing hearing, kind of.  After someone’s convicted, right, there’s a whole other sentencing phase. It’s kind of like that. So the judge basically, you know, quote, unquote, convicted them on this wrongdoing. And now there’s the quote, unquote, penalty phase, that’s more or less the analogy in the civil setting. So it’s over in the sense that the merits of the case have been decided, I mean, they could always appeal for all I know, they might appeal. And that could change the picture somewhat. But we have this ruling that says they broke the law, right? So now it’s like, well, how do you remedy that? And that’s an open question. 

Rashah McChesney: There could still be a fair amount of wrangling. 

Libby Bakalar: There’s a fair amount of loose ends. It’s not just, like, completely over. It’s a win there. It’s a pretty much an unqualified win, in my opinion, just because for me, just psychologically, I just, this whole time, all I ever wanted was for a judge to say, “Yes, this was unconstitutional. Yes, this was illegal.” And that finally happened. And so for me, it’s over in my mind on that front. In terms of my feelings of vindication on the merits of what they did, how they’re going to pay for it, what’s going to happen in the future, how this will affect state employees. …What I really care about is that this never happened to another state employee ever again. I never want to see a mass resignation scheme. I never want to see a partially exempt, non-unionized state employee — some geologist, biologist, architect, you know — be forced to resign their job every four years. That’s just insane. 

Rashah McChesney: Is this case as simple as a free speech test? And should every state employee go out now and write whatever they want about the president on a personal blog and feel reasonably certain that they won’t be fired?

Libby Bakalar: I don’t know. I definitely would hesitate to answer that question in the affirmative. I don’t think that’s true. I think there is a fact-based analysis of like, what positions are really policymaking positions for which political affiliation is actually a job requirement? I don’t think the court order really answers that question in any kind of uniform way. It certainly doesn’t say every non-unionized state employee can say whatever they want, whenever they want. Like, that’s not what it says. But I think what it does do is it sends a message that, you know, at least in some cases, you know, non unionized state employees do have free speech rights. It’s not a good faith constitutional use of personnel resources, to demand resignations, and to make personnel decisions, based strictly on people’s off-duty speech, right? 

But there again, there’s complicated case law, and these complicated tests and balancing tests and applying all these factors and things. So it’s not as cut and dried as now, you know, every non-unionized state employee, every partially exempt state employee can say and do whatever they want. No, that’s not what this order says. But I think it does send a message that there are still, there are limits, you know, to what the government can do to you. And we do have, we still have democracy, at least nominally. And we still have free speech rights in this country. And even if you work for the state, and that’s, that’s been established now. And I think it was established before it should have been known before. But now it’s been reiterated in no uncertain terms.

So I think future administrations are going to think twice before they try anything like this ever again. So functionally, I think it’s going to be — there will be much more deliberation about that transition. About who is told to leave their job, and who was forced to resign their job. And under what conditions, right? I think I will have set some precedent, these two cases will have set some precedent in that respect.

Rashah McChesney: Right, because this is something that happens during every governor’s administration, generally, is that they asked for the resignation, but usually of political appointees, right?

Libby Bakalar: Usually commissioner-level and director-level people, deputy director levels … people who are quite comfortably within that policymaking framework, right. Not typically ever, you know, a Fish and Game biologist, or, you know, city water, a state water inspector or something. I mean, jobs that have absolutely no policymaking, you can’t even make a good faith argument that these are policymaking jobs. But, you know, that was all based on norms before, and this administration shattered those norms. 

Just because it had never been done before. And the reason it had never been done before was because you would never even consider asking non policymaking employees to resign. And yet, they did do that as some sort of, quote, bold new thing or something to quote Tuckerman Babcock. But what it was, it was a flex, you know. It was a flex. It was an intimidation tactic. It worked. You know, for the past four years, three-and-a-half years people have been absolutely terrified in this administration. 

I hear from state employees every day, how scared they are working for these people. And with good reason. They have shown absolutely no compunction about violating the law and penalizing people for quote-unquote disloyalty. 

So there was like, a few different kind of iterations of this, right? And all of it just sent this general message of intimidation. And the idea that you’re, you know, the administration is lurking on your social media, and they’re just waiting to pounce on you for disloyalty. I mean, that’s a terrible and completely undemocratic way to exist as a government employee. And it just made me so angry. And I think that’s what fueled this entire thing for me, is that I just wanted to do something impactful for the entire state employee workforce. 

Rashah McChesney: In that other case that we were talking about earlier were a couple of doctors sued over this resignation letter requirement. The judge ruled that Tuckerman Babcock and and Governor Dunleavy don’t have qualified immunity in that situation. Does that apply to your case as well?

Libby Bakalar: No, it doesn’t, and I didn’t expect it to either. Qualified immunity is a very hard thing to lose. You have to really do something bonkers to lose it. And I was actually surprised in the psychiatrists case to see Dunleavy and Babcock stripped of qualified immunity, because its functions, in practice, like absolute immunity, it really does. 

I’ve never seen it happen where a government defendant in a civil case like this loses qualified immunity. It’s just unusual, it’s very unusual. Because if government workers were able to be held personally liable in their jobs, no one would ever work for the government, right? So there has to be some form of protection there. 

But I think what the judge was saying is that they went so far with this, this was so out of the realm of reason to do this, that they were personally liable for it. I think, in a way, I think qualified immunity is good for government workers. In another sense, it also disincentivizes good faith conduct on the part of people in power in government, because unless it’s their personal assets on the line in these types of situations — somebody is acting in bad faith — there’s no incentive to obey the law.

Take my case, for example. I’ve been gone from the Department of Law for three-and-a-half years. They got what they wanted, they got me gone, I’m gone. I’m not there, right? They’ve gone on. And now like the damages phase is, you know, the damages go to the state of Alaska, not to them. So — they lost nothing. So when you lose qualified immunity, at least that sends the message of “you can’t just do whatever you want.” At some point, there’s going to be a point at which you are going to have to worry about your personal assets in these things. And you can’t just disobey the law, and expect to completely get away with it every time and have the State of Alaska foot the bill in the end.

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