JUNEAU - Attorney General Dan Sullivan took heat for his department's stance on a tribal sovereignty case Thursday during an otherwise friendly confirmation hearing, winning the House Judiciary Committee's backing.
Sullivan, who was appointed by then-Gov. Sarah Palin shortly before her resignation last summer, faces another hearing in Senate Judiciary before the Legislature holds a joint session for final confirmation, likely in April.
The tribal sovereignty question came from Rep. Bob Herron, D-Bethel, who had concerns about Sullivan seeking a U.S. Supreme Court hearing in a case pitting the state against the Kaltag Tribal Council. The case deals with the state's refusal to recognize a council decision in a child custody case. Herron represents a rural, majority-Alaskan Native area.
Sullivan said he's committed to addressing the challenges of rural Alaska, serving on the governor's rural subcabinet and working on an agreement regarding the federal Indian Child Welfare Act brought up by the Kaltag case.
He said the state's appeal to the Supreme Court is narrowly focused, intended to clarify what the jurisdictional reach of tribal governments are over nonmembers.
Lawmakers did not ask about polarizing issues such as the death penalty, which House Speaker Mike Chenault is seeking for Alaska, or abortion, for which a ballot question is being prepared that could force doctors to notify parents before performing an abortion on minors.
Nor did lawmakers ask about the role of attorney general as it relates to service to the governor's office, for which former Attorney General Talis Colberg drew criticism before resigning. Colberg had advised Palin's staff they could ignore subpoenas from a legislative committee investigating abuse-of-power allegations against the former governor.
Sullivan told lawmakers he would continue to fight what he called the encroachment of the federal government in Alaska's affairs.
It's "absolutely critical" the state become an active party in lawsuits protecting Alaska's economic interests on topics like the Endangered Species Act, outer-continental shelf resource development and the Tongass National Forest, he said. That way, the state has standing to appeal and has a seat at the negotiating table if there's a settlement, he added.
To many, fighting the federal government's reach appears to be an Alaska-specific problem, but other states are similarly affected, Sullivan said.
"This state seems to be in the bull's-eye, no matter what. ... Trust me, this is coming to a theater near you in a very short time, and you'll need to react," he said.
He also said he has forced himself onto the agenda of an upcoming attorneys general conference by sending letters to each state's attorney general about how Alaska's fights with the federal government are relevant elsewhere.
Sullivan's role as a major in the Marine reserves also came up. Rep. Max Gruenberg, D-Anchorage, asked whether his civilian or military role would take precedence if he were called to duty.
"I don't think the state would want that to be an 'either-or' decision," Sullivan said. He noted that Delaware Attorney General Beau Biden's Army National Guard unit was deployed in 2008 and that he served overseas while his office continued to function.