Critics say Murkowski waffles on nomination

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Sen. Murkowski spoke to reporters Wednesday in Juneau. (Skip Gray/360 North)
Sen. Murkowski spoke to reporters Wednesday in Juneau. (Skip Gray/360 North)

Critics of Sen. Lisa Murkowski are seizing on what they see as a flip-flop in her position on whether Barack Obama should be the president who chooses the next justice of the Supreme Court. In Juneau on Wednesday, Murkowski said she expected Obama would soon nominate someone to replace Justice Antonin Scalia.

“I do believe that the nominee should get a hearing,” she said then, adding that she didn’t think Obama’s nominee would necessarily advance to a vote in the Senate.

But by the next day she was saying she didn’t think there should be an Obama nominee.

“I urge the President to follow a tradition embraced by both parties over the past 80 years and allow his successor in the White House to select the next Supreme Court Justice,” she said, in a five-part post on Twitter, and on Facebook.

Anchorage attorney Margaret Stock just announced she’s running for Murkowski’s seat, as an independent. She says Murkowski isn’t being true to her past position and she figures the senator is bowing to political pressure. And she disputes Murkowski’s claim that there’s an 80-year tradition barring the president from making a nomination.

“This isn’t any tradition that I’ve ever heard of,” Stock says.

Murkowski was not available to describe what tradition she was referring to. But the Supreme Court experts at SCOTUSblog looked back to 1900 and they’ve determined that no president delayed a nomination to wait out an election. Taft, Wilson, Hoover, FDR and LBJ all nominated Supreme Court justices in presidential election years, according to their research..

It could be that Murkowski’s Tweet refers to a Senate tradition of blocking those election-year nominees, because the Senate has done that, a lot. Her Tweet may have wrongly described what the senator meant, because here’s how Murkowski herself put it to reporters in Juneau:

“The history of what happens when there’s a vacancy in the Supreme Court during the same year that you have a presidential election — This history is, it’s been 80 years (since) the Senate acted on that nominee, in that election year,” she said. “The thought being that the new president should have the opportunity to name this lifetime appointment.”

That does nearly comport with Supreme Court history, because the last president to successfully fill a vacancy in an election year was Franklin Roosevelt, 76 years ago. (Unless you count presidents Eisenhower or Reagan, but those are special cases.)

Stock, the Murkowski challenger, dug up a column Murkowski wrote in 2005 for the Juneau Empire to suggest Murkowski has changed her tune.

“Let me make it clear that I support an up-or-down vote on all nominations brought to the Senate floor, regardless of the president nominating them or which party controls the Senate,” Murkowski wrote back then.

The column was about ending filibusters of judicial nominees, not necessarily Supreme Court picks. But Stock says she sees a big inconsistency.

“A lot of Alaskans are very unhappy with her, and it’s for exactly this reason,” Stock says. “She takes a position in writing, says she believes in a principle, and then she waffles on it.”

Alaska Democratic Party spokesman Jake Hamburg says it’s ironic that Murkowski’s theme, in her annual address to the Legislature this week, was delivering “certainty” to Alaskans.

“The only thing that’s certain is that she’s going to change her position according to whichever way the wind is going,” he said.

Murkowski, when asked about her new challenger in Juneau on Wednesday, said campaigning isn’t her favorite part of the job.

“But I’m not doing anything different because we have a newly announced individual who’s stepped up,” she said. “Just going to keep working every day, real hard.”

A Murkowski spokeswoman said neither she nor the senator were unavailable to discuss her statements by our deadline Friday.