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Murkowski says lingering election uncertainty could endanger her seniority

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Posted: Wednesday, November 24, 2010 3:15 pm | Updated: 1:16 pm, Wed Dec 26, 2012.

• Library of court filings: Miller vs. Campbell/Division of Elections

Updated 6:25 p.m.

FAIRBANKS - Sen. Lisa Murkowski asked a state court on Wednesday to quickly resolve an elections lawsuit by Republican nominee Joe Miller, saying she could lose seniority and valuable committee spots if the issue lingers.

Murkowski filed to intervene in Miller’s lawsuit against Lt. Gov. Craig Campbell and the Alaska Division of Elections, arguing in the court filings that she would “suffer irreparable injury” if the issue “is not decided at the earliest possible time.”

Miller filed the lawsuit in Fairbanks on Monday to stop the state from using discretion in determining voter intent on write-in ballots cast for Murkowski. Murkowski currently has a lead of more than 10,000 votes, although her lead over Miller is cut to 2,169 votes if ballots contested by Miller are excluded.

Murkowski attorney Scott Kendall said it’s crucial that Murkowski be sworn in along with other colleagues on Jan. 3, 2011. Without that move, Murkowski’s seat will become vacant and Alaska will temporarily only have one senator.

In the documents, Kendall also argues that Murkowski could lose her seniority in the Senate — going from 43rd in seniority to 100th — if a “gap in service” appears on her record because the swearing-in is delayed.

The Senate also selects committee leaders and ranking members soon after members are sworn in, which Kendall said could endanger Murkowski’s chance to be re-elected as ranking member of the Senate Energy and Natural Resources Committee and on a subcommittee on the Appropriations Committee.

“The effect on Alaska from the loss of these positions would be very harmful and could be long lasting,” the documents state.

In a separate filing, Attorney General Dan Sullivan also asked the court to resolve all election litigation by Jan. 3, citing similar concerns with the timing of the U.S. Senate swearing-in ceremony.

In the recent past, a postponed swearing-in date hasn’t necessarily kept a Republican senator from hanging onto key committee assignments, although a similar battle in 2008 didn’t have a key committee post at stake.

Two years ago, the fight between Republican Sen. Norm Coleman and Democrat Al Franken stretched on in Minnesota for nearly eight months past Election Day before Franken was declared the winner. During that period of uncertainty, Senator Minority Leader Mitch McConnell filled Coleman’s committee assignments with “placeholders” in case Coleman ultimately prevailed.

A spokesman for McConnell couldn’t be reached on Wednesday to comment.

Murkowski spokesman Mike Brumas said Murkowski has applied to retain her seats on the Health, Appropriations, Energy and Indian Affairs committees. Under normal circumstances he said it would be unusual if such a request weren’t granted to an incumbent.

It’s less clear how a delayed swearing-in session could affect Murkowski’s seniority. Sen. Frank Lautenberg, D-N.J., lost his seniority because of a break in service, but that was due to a voluntary two-year departure from office.

Miller first filed a lawsuit against Campbell and the Division of Elections in federal court, but U.S. District Court Judge Ralph Beistline ruled on Friday that it was a matter for state court. Beistline ruled that, if Miller did file in state court, that the state could not certify the election until Miller’s issues had been resolved. Miller then filed his lawsuit in state court in Fairbanks, where the matter has been assigned to Superior Court Judge Douglas Blankenship.

Sullivan has requested that the case be moved to Juneau, where write-in ballots were counted and sorted by election workers. He said the key witnesses and Division of Elections Director Gail Fenumiai all reside in Juneau, making it a more appropriate and less expensive venue.

No hearing date had been set to consider the requests as of Wednesday afternoon.

Contact staff writer Jeff Richardson at 459-7518.

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