Town Hall

U.S. Sens. Lisa Murkowski and Dan Sullivan

On Friday, just hours before the news broke that revered women’s rights advocate and Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg had died at age 87, Alaska Republican Sen. Lisa Murkowski told a reporter that she would not support filling a vacant seat on the high court until after the election. 

Murkowski’s junior counterpart, Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan, did not take such a firm stance. 

Sullivan was in the KTUU studio when the news broke Friday and was soon asked whether he would support pushing through a Trump nomination for the now-empty seat before the election.

Sullivan dodged the question and took no stance, instead stating that now was a time to remember Ginsburg’s legacy and “there will be plenty of opportunities to talk about next steps after this.”

Both Alaska senators shared condolences with Ginsburg’s friends and family and recalled her landmark legal career. 

Murkowski, who has long been categorized as one of the more moderate Senate Republicans, said in an interview Friday afternoon that if she were presented with a vacant seat on the Supreme Court she would let whoever prevailed in the November presidential election name Ginsburg’s replacement. 

Hours later, Ginsburg died in her home in Washington, D.C., after fighting a second bout of pancreatic cancer. Her death sent the nation into an immediate frenzy over how and when her seat on the bench will be filled, with many Democrats calling for the Senate to wait until after the election and let whoever wins select a replacement and Republicans calling for a Trump nomination to be approved now. Trump joined the conversation, calling for the Senate to vote on the replacement “without delay.”

For Murkowski, it’s too close to the election. 

“I would not vote to confirm a Supreme Court nominee. We are 50 some days away,” Murkowski said Friday. 

Both Murkowski and Sullivan stood with fellow Republicans in 2016 to block Obama nominee Merrick Garland from replacing the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Both claimed it was too close to the election, as did Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell.

Garland was nominated 232 days before the 2016 presidential election. This year’s general election is less than 50 days away.

At the time McConnell said: “The American people should have a voice in the selection of their next Supreme Court Justice. Therefore, this vacancy should not be filled until we have a new president.”

Friday, McConnell’s message was different. Just hours after Ginsburg’s death was announced, the Kentucky Republican said the Senate will hold a floor vote on a Trump nominee before the election. 

Sullivan shared a similar message to McConnell’s in 2016. 

“Alaskans, like all Americans, are in the midst of an important national election,” Sullivan said after Scalia’s death. “The next Supreme Court justice could fundamentally change the direction of the Court for years to come. Alaskans deserve to have a voice in that direction through their vote, and we will ensure they have one.”

It remains unclear how Sullivan will proceed with the nomination process. The senator is up for election in November against moderate unaffiliated candidate Al Gross, who has long criticized Sullivan’s propensity for voting alongside McConnell on myriad issues before the Senate.

At the time, Republicans defended their rejection of an Obama nominee on the basis that having reached his term limit, Obama would be ceding his seat to a new president regardless of the outcome of the election. Now there is a possible Republican incumbent who could win the election, so many Republicans’ stances are different. 

Trump’s shortlist for Supreme Court nominations includes three sitting senators, Texas Republican Ted Cruz, Arkansas Republican Tom Cotton and Missouri Republican Josh Hawley. The list of approximately 40 possible nominees also features a number of circuit court judges with a record of conservative rulings including U.S. 7th Circuit Judge Amy Coney Barrett, who is considered to be a leading contender.

Ginsburg, during her decades serving on the high court, dissented often from the group of nine justices — a majority of whom were nominated by Republican presidents. 

On the docket of concerns voiced by many if the bench gets another Trump nominee is the status of abortion rights granted in Roe v. Wade as well as equal marriage rights for lesbian and gay couples that was granted in Obergefell v. Hodges in 2015. 

A simple majority vote is needed to approve a Trump nomination in the Senate. There are 53 Republicans. Moderate Maine Republican Sen. Susan Collins has also told reporters she will not vote for a Supreme Court nomination until after the election. If the chamber ties 50-50, Vice President Mike Pence, sitting as Senate president, would be called on to cast the tie-breaking vote.

If a nominee is pushed through before the election, that would be President Trump’s third Supreme Court nomination, the first being Justice Neal Gorsuch and the second being controversial nomination of Justice Brett Kavanaugh last year.

Editor's note: This story has been updated to correct that the latest vacancy is the third of Trump's presidency and to add information about a Senate confirmation vote.

Contact staff writer Erin McGroarty at 459-7544. Follow her at twitter.com/FDNMpolitics