Alaska Republican Sen. Dan Sullivan has convened a handpicked panel to advise him on selecting federal judges — a move senior Sen. Lisa Murkowski says will unnecessarily delay filling a long-vacant Alaska U.S. District Court seat.
The nine-member Alaska Federal Judiciary Council, announced by Sullivan’s office Monday, includes high-profile Republican politicians such as former Gov. Sean Parnell, who was named chair, and former Lt. Gov. Loren Leman. The panel will consider potential candidates and provide Sullivan with “advice and counsel,” he said.
Federal judges are nominated by the president and confirmed in a Senate hearing. But home-state senators play an influential role in the process. Traditionally, senators forward a list of preferred candidates for judicial seats to the White House, which makes the final call. Senators can also block the president’s nominees by not signing off on the candidate in what is known as the “blue slip” process.
One of Alaska’s three U.S. District Court seats has been vacant since the retirement of Judge Timothy Burgess in 2021. Federal judges are appointed for life, meaning whoever is selected has the potential to wield influence for decades to come.
Murkowski was not involved in creating the council, Sullivan said. It will only provide advice to him.
“Historically, the two senators have conferred before submitting a joint letter to the president,” said Sullivan spokesman Ben Dietderich. “Senator Sullivan plans on sticking with that process.”
In a testy statement Monday, Murkowski wrote that she agreed with Sullivan that the selection process could be improved, but “those conversations should have started a long time ago, not after we’ve spent almost two years working to fill the seat.”
For decades, Murkowski said in the statement, the selection process has included the Alaska Bar Association polling its membership on qualifications of interested candidates. She wrote that the process to fill Burgess’ seat had been underway for some time, with a bar poll finished in May.
“A number of very qualified Alaskans put their names forward to be considered for the seat, and I interviewed many of them,” the statement said. “Recently, the Board of Governors for the Alaska Bar Association sent me and Senator Sullivan a letter sharing their concerns ‘about the length of the vacancy and its impacts on Alaska at large and the administration of justice more broadly,’ ” the statement said. “I couldn’t agree more.”
“My process is now complete,” Murkowski wrote. “Alaskans have waited long enough for the district court to operate at full capacity, and I look forward to the vacancy being filled without further delay.”
In recent years, two candidates for federal judgeships advanced by the senators have drawn extra scrutiny because of their age and performance on Alaska Bar Association polls, which have traditionally surveyed fellow attorneys about the qualifications of potential federal judges.
In 2017, Anchorage attorney Jonathan Katchen, then 43, was chosen by President Donald Trump for a federal judgeship after the senators submitted his name among four others. But Katchen ended up withdrawing from the process after reportedly facing opposition and low marks on the Alaska Bar Association polls — which were not released to the public. Katchen is among the nine members named to Sullivan’s council.
In 2019, Anchorage attorney Joshua Kindred, then 41, was nominated with what Alaska Public Media reported were even lower scores on the Alaska Bar Association poll, coming in 16th out of 20 possible candidates. Kindred was confirmed and is an Alaska U.S. District Court judge.
At the time, Murkowski told Alaska Public Media that it was “very clear” the Trump administration was looking for younger people to appoint to the federal bench.
Sullivan said his new council means Alaska will join 25 other states with similar judicial appointment selection councils, including Texas and Hawaii. He said he personally selected the council members by “just looking at who are some of the best people to do it.”
Among other members of Sullivan’s council are Christine McLeod Pate, the legal program director for the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault; Kim Reitmeier, president of the ANCSA Regional Association; and Matt Findley, a partner at Anchorage firm Ashburn and Mason.
Sullivan said he modeled the panel on the Alaska Judicial Council, which selects a pool of state court judicial candidates to advance to the governor, who selects a final pick. The Alaska Judicial Council includes the chief justice of the Alaska Supreme Court, three attorneys selected by other attorneys and three members of the public tapped by the governor and confirmed by the Legislature.
The Alaska Judicial Council has drawn the ire of some conservatives, who have called it an unelected insider group.
Theriault Boots reported from Anchorage and Rogerson reported from Washington, D.C.