Sen. Dan Sullivan, responding to criticism that Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh could threaten unique laws and programs for Alaska Natives, said the judge told him directly this week that the legal rights of Alaska Natives are well-established by Congress and the courts.
"And he also said the trust responsibility for Alaska Natives is 100 percent clear from the Congress," Sullivan said, referring to the federal government's unique relationship with tribes, including in Alaska, that's important for protecting tribal rights and assets.
Meeting with reporters in Anchorage on Friday, on a weekend trip home from Washington, D.C., the Republican senator from Alaska said the half-hour-long phone call with Kavanaugh came in response to concerns raised by Alaska Native leaders and groups, including a statement from the Alaska Federation of Natives on Wednesday urging senators to vote against Kavanaugh's appointment.
AFN President Julie Kitka said Sullivan called her after his discussion with Kavanaugh. She would not say whether the group's concerns have changed.
"We are really appreciative that Sen. Sullivan raised our concerns with the nominee," Kitka said. "We understand Sen. (Lisa) Murkowski also raised the concerns with the nominee. We know they'll factor his response into how they vote."
Sullivan has said he'll vote for Kavanaugh. Murkowski has not said how she'll vote. Murkowksi, under pressure from many groups to vote 'no,' could not be reached on Friday.
The nomination of Kavanaugh, a U.S. Court of Appeals judge for the D.C. Circuit, has divided opponents who fear he'll push the court further to the right, and supporters who hope he'll help reverse the landmark abortion rights ruling in Roe v. Wade.
The Senate Judiciary Committee, which does not include Alaska's two senators, is expected to vote on Kavanaugh's Supreme Court nomination on Thursday, following confirmation hearings last week. A floor vote would likely follow.
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AFN is the state's largest Native organization. Sullivan said he took their views very seriously. He said he forwarded the AFN statement and other letters and opinion pieces regarding Kavanaugh and Native issues to the White House, in hope of speaking with him.
That led to the phone call, in which Sullivan said he went down the list of AFN concerns as he spoke with the judge.
The concerns largely stem from Kavanaugh's positions on Hawaiian indigenous rights, Sullivan said.
AFN said Kavanaugh has questioned the federal government's relationship with Native Hawaiians. The group suggested he might apply that view to limit Alaska Native rights and programs, treating both groups differently than Lower 48 tribes.
According to Sullivan, Kavanaugh told him "the big difference with regard to Hawaiian Natives is that the legal rights of Alaska Natives, to include tribes, regional and village corporations, were very clear, well-established and very different legally from indigenous Hawaiians, and Congress has repeatedly and explicitly recognized the rights and tribal status for Alaska Natives, including the federal government's trust responsibility for Alaska Natives, while it has never done that for Hawaiian Native people."
Sullivan said Kavanaugh made similar points in a response to a question from Sen. Mazie Hirono, D-Hawaii. The response, released Thursday, followed more than 1,000 written questions submitted by senators to Kavanaugh after his confirmation hearings, Sullivan said.
In his response, Kavanaugh said the Supreme Court has upheld the unique relationship between Congress and Alaska Native groups.
"Native Alaskans are Indian tribes and therefore enjoy all of the relevant rights and benefits that come with their trust relationship with the United States," Kavanaugh replied to Hirono.