Murkowski, weighing Kavanaugh’s stand on abortion, still mum on vote

WASHINGTON — Alaska Sen. Lisa Murkowski isn't in a rush to decide how she'll vote on Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh, despite mounting pressure from activists and concerned Alaskans.

The Republican senator said she will make her vote plans known before his nomination hits the Senate floor — an event expected before the end of the month. This week, she's watching Kavanaugh's hearings before the judiciary committee, when she can.

"I've been very clear in terms of what my vetting process was going to be," Murkowski said in an interview Wednesday. "I've spent a lot of time going through the writings, the speeches, the opinions. I met with him … And now we're in the midst of the hearings."

Murkowski's so far unpromised vote is of keen interest to those supporting and fighting Kavanaugh's nomination. Republicans only need a simple majority to confirm him to the high court, but currently have a slim 51-49 vote majority. Any lost Republican vote puts the nomination in jeopardy.

"So far I haven't heard anything that is earthshaking, something that hasn't been out there as a point of discussion before. But I know they really just started questions this morning," Murkowski said of the hearing.

Murkowski's takeaway from reading Kavanaugh's judicial opinions is that he is "a person who is very critical in his evaluation of the facts as applied to the law," she said. Sometimes he rules for the Environmental Protection Agency, and sometimes against it, she said. "So I'm looking at that to try to determine what basically what kind of a jurist (he) is, and my review has concluded that this is somebody who looks very critically at the facts of each case and then works to apply the law to it," she said.

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That's a positive, she said. "I don't want a judge who's going to be going into an issue with a predetermined outcome," she said.

In her recent 90-minute meeting with Kavanaugh, Murkowski said she talked to him at length about precedent and quizzed him specifically on cases granting abortion rights and legal gay marriage. Though Murkowski spoke at length about the parameters of their discussion, she did not clearly relay where Kavanaugh sees the "tipping point" for when it is reasonable to overturn long-established legal precedent, such as in the landmark abortion rights case Roe v. Wade.

"I don't know what his personal belief about abortion is. I don't know that anybody knows what his personal belief is," she said.

Murkowski wants to hear more about established precedents at this week's hearings, she said.

And she noted, that while cases "could" come from lower courts that test Roe v. Wade, it is not certain.

"But I do think that there are people who have been made to fear that if Judge Kavanaugh is nominated, that the day he joins the bench, that Roe versus Wade is going to be overturned. That is just not possible," she said.

In the weeks leading up to the Kavanaugh hearing and this week, campaigns opposing and supporting the nomination have continued to vie for her vote, with ad campaigns, visits to Washington, D.C., and other initiatives designed to spur voters to contact Murkowski about the nomination.

The commercials, at least, aren't of much interest to her, she said. "I turned the TV on in my house here in D.C. to watch the beginning of the hearing yesterday morning — that's the first time I've had that TV on all summer. So yeah, so I don't watch 'em," she said.

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Erica Martinson

Erica Martinson is a former reporter for the Anchorage Daily News based in Washington, D.C.