Murkowski and Sullivan split over how to evaluate federal judge applicants

pillars and dome of u.s. capitol
U.S. Capitol. (Liz Ruskin/Alaska Public Media)

U.S. Sen. Dan Sullivan says he’s formed a new council to consider applicants for Alaska’s federal judgeships. He’s sidestepping a process that’s been in place for decades and it’s caused some friction between him and Sen. Lisa Murkowski. Alaska Public Media’s Liz Ruskin joined Alaska News Nightly host Casey Grove to discuss that, and the possibility of a federal government shutdown.


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The following transcript has been lightly edited for clarity

Casey Grove: Liz, he’s calling this the “Alaska Federal Judiciary Council.”  Can a senator just convene his own council?

Liz Ruskin: Sure. In fact, I’m convening a council of my own right now to advise me on how to answer whatever questions you have for me. …. All kidding aside, Sen. Sullivan can convene advisors for whatever he wants, and he’s trying to imbue this council with more than casual meaning. The truth is, it may not mean that much because Sen. Murkowski has made it clear she’s not interested. 

CG: Let’s back up. Alaska has three federal District Court judges, and one of those positions is vacant. Remind us how federal judges are chosen.

LR: They are nominated by the president and confirmed by a vote of the U.S. Senate. That’s per the Constitution, which says the appointment is with the “advice and consent” of the Senate.  Generally, home state senators recommend names to the president. The president is motivated to listen, because – and here’s another tradition – senators can “blue slip” a nominee for their home state. In other words, senators extend to each other the power to veto a selection. So, if a president wants a judicial appointment to stick, he’s likely to listen to the homestate senators. 

CG: How do senators decide who to recommend?

LR: Well, they could just promote their friends and supporters, but that’s not a good look when you’re trying to create an independent federal judiciary. And of course sometimes, a state’s senators come from the opposite party as the president, so a political choice isn’t going to get very far.

So, like a lot of states, the Alaska tradition — and this goes back at least a few decades — is that the senators ask the Alaska Bar Association to collect the names of people who’d like to be nominated, and then the Bar Association polls all the attorneys in the state and asks, is this person qualified. And then the senators use that poll to help them decide.

CG: Did that happen this time?

LR: Yes. Sen. Murkowski requested a Bar Poll. It was conducted this spring. There were 14 names and two really came out in front. State Superior Court Judge Yvonne Lamoureux and the current U.S. attorney for Alaska, S. Lane Tucker.

CG: Did Sen. Sullivan just not like the results of the Bar Poll so he’s proposing a different method?

LR: It seems his dissatisfaction with the existing process preceded this poll, because he didn’t join Murkowski in requesting it, as he did in 2017. But there’s a lot of politics between the lines here. Alaska conservatives have been grumbling for a long time about the Bar Association, which they say has too big a role in the selection of state judges.

CG: In the state judicial selection process, right, the Bar Association appoints three people to the Alaska Judicial Council, the governor appoints three, the chief justice of the state Supreme Court is on there to make it seven, and the governor names a judge from the list the council forwards. That’s from the state Constitution. But we’ve heard complaints from conservatives that it gives too much power to the Bar Association.

LR: Right. And interesting to note that Sen. Sullivan says he’s modeled his new council on the state’s judicial council, but in this case he’s chosen all the members, with no role for the Bar Association. And he’s chosen some political figures, like former governor Sean Parnell and former Lt. Gov Loren Leman.

CG: And what does Sen. Murkowski say? 

LR: She issued a statement that kind of bristles with frustration:

I agree with Senator Sullivan that we can improve our federal judiciary selection process, but those conversations should have started a long time ago, not after we’ve spent almost two years working to fill the seat. For decades, the selection process for judges has included the Alaska Bar Association soliciting the names of interested candidates, and members of the Alaska bar providing their input. This ‘bar poll’ – to fill the open seat – was initiated in March, at my request, and concluded in May. A number of very qualified Alaskans put their names forward to be considered for the seat, and I interviewed many of them. My process is now complete. Alaskans have waited long enough for the district court to operate at full capacity, and I look forward to the vacancy being filled without further delay.

CG: Does this seem like a serious rift between the senators?

LR: No, they’ll get over it. But it does seem like another example of Murkowski sticking to what had been the traditions that previous Republican senators have followed, and Sullivan going a different way that has more appeal for the right wing of the party, and for Alaska Republicans.

CG: Lastly, Liz, what can you tell me about the possibility of a shutdown?

LR: It is looking possible. Congress has one more week to try to work out a deal. If they don’t, some government offices won’t function, and other federal workers will be on the job without pay for a while. But the airports will still operate, the mail will still come and Social Security checks will continue.

Liz Ruskin is the Washington, D.C., correspondent at Alaska Public Media. Reach her at Read more about Liz here.

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