A U.S. judge sided Thursday with an attorney who alleged she was wrongly fired by the state of Alaska 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 associational rights under the U.S. and state constitutions.
According to Sedwick’s decision, 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, the order says.
Shortly after Republican Gov. Mike 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 order says. 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.
Jury trials have been paused in some western Michigan counties due to a surge in coronavirus cases, court officials said Monday.
Chief Judge Mark Trusock said all jury trials in Kent County 17th Circuit Court, based in Grand Rapids, were on hold until March 7. Ottawa County Probate Court and the 20th Judicial Circuit Court, based in Grand Haven, will not summon the public to courthouses to serve as jurors until at least Feb. 1, according to a statement released by the court.
Michigan health officials said last week that the state’s record-high COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations could peak in late January or early February, and they urged the public to take steps to help control the spread.
Ottawa County court officials said their decision was made in consultation with the Ottawa County Department of Public Health. Circuit Court Administrator Susan Franklin said judges don’t want to bring large numbers of people into the courthouses given the current rates of COVID transmission.
Courts across the U.S. have paused jury trials at various points during the pandemic. The highly contagious omicron variant has prompted additional pauses in recent days, including in Indiana’s largest county and in the state’s second most-populous county.
A federal appeals court has ruled two counties that hold immigrant detainees at local jails must terminate contracts with federal authorities starting Thursday.
Leaders in Kankakee and McHenry counties sued over an Illinois law aimed at ending immigration detention in the state by Jan. 1 and lost. But they were allowed to delay while on appeal.
In the ruling, the 7th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals said the counties hadn’t made their case.
“We conclude that the counties have not made a ‘strong showing’ that they are likely to succeed on the merits,” the three-judge panel concluded.
Roughly 100 detainees remain at the jails. Winding down the contracts is expected to take a few weeks.
The Illinois law has been celebrated by immigrant rights activists who say detaining people awaiting immigration hearings is inhumane and costly. They’re pushing to release detainees instead of transferring them elsewhere.
Last year, downstate Pulaski County cleared its jail of immigrant detainees. Court records show 15 were released. Dozens of others were transferred to Kansas and the two Illinois facilities.
Officials in McHenry and Kankakee counties, who didn’t return messages Thursday, have previously said they’d continue to appeal. They say the contracts are lucrative and argue that ending them simply transfers detainees further from their families.
U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement didn’t return a message Thursday.
The longest serving magistrate in Alaska is no longer on the bench after writing letters to the editor critical of the Republican party.
Former Seward Magistrate George Peck wrote four letters to the editor of the Anchorage Daily News, the latest in December which claimed the Republican party “is actively trying to steer the U.S. into an authoritarian kleptocracy.”
The other letters written since 2019 have been critical of former President Donald Trump and Alaska Gov. Mike Dunleavy, both Republicans, and the GOP, the Anchorage Daily News reported.
Peck did not note his judicial position when signing in the letters, and there have been no complaints filed against him. However, his supervisor, Anchorage Superior Court Judge William Morse, ordered the court’s human resources department to investigate.
Morse said in a formal decision last Wednesday that Peck’s letter was in violation of Alaska’s code of judicial conduct.
“As a magistrate judge, the public entrusts you to decide cases with the utmost fairness, independence and impartiality. The power of your own voice, even when expressed off the bench, can become inextricably tied to your position, especially in a small community where you are the sole judicial officer,” Morse said.
When the 81-year-old Peck was informed Wednesday that he would be fired two days later, he instead immediately submitted his resignation and worked his last day Thursday.
Peck told the Anchorage newspaper that he doesn’t regret the letter and said he was just “stating a fact that the Republican Party tried to overturn the election, which I think most people agree on.”
He also doesn’t blame the juridical system for forcing him out.
“Clearly, they were justified in doing what they’re doing,” Peck said. “I just think they could have found a little better way to do it, but that’s up to them.”
Peck began working as a magistrate judge in 1976 and retired from full-time work in 2016. The court system kept him working on a temporary, part-time basis.
Magistrates oversee minor judicial matters in the court system, such as traffic violations, small-claims cases and time-sensitive matters, such as search warrants and domestic violence cases.