Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin had to make a tough choice in filling a vacant slot on her state’s Supreme Court: Appoint a woman who once served on the board of Planned Parenthood, or risk giving an environmentalist lawyer, also pro-choice on abortion, the chance to become an activist judge.
Mrs. Palin, a pro-lifer who ran as the Republican vice presidential candidate last fall, rankled social conservatives by choosing Anchorage Superior Court Judge Morgan Christen, the woman with Planned Parenthood ties, over Eric Smith.
Wendy Wright, president of Concerned Women for America (CWA), said the appointment has “caused many of us to take a step back. We’re surprised.”
Members of the Alaska Family Council (AFC), a nonprofit devoted to advancing socially conservative causes, encouraged Mrs. Palin to appoint Mr. Smith, and more than 100 people sent letters to the governor’s office urging her to do so.
But Mrs. Palin ultimately chose Judge Christen and said “I have every confidence that Judge Christen has the experience, intellect, wisdom and character to be an outstanding Supreme Court Justice.”
“When we looked into it, we felt Morgan Christen was probably the one who would be most in opposition to our issues,” AFC President Jim Minnery said. “From everything we could tell, even though he was probably not in line with our values, he was the lesser of two evils.”
He admitted, however, that Mrs. Palin was “backed into a corner” by the state’s system for selecting judges, known as the “Missouri Plan.” Alaska’s constitution requires an independent panel to vet and then submit choices to the governor when positions on the court open up. The only names the panel submitted for consideration were Judge Christen and Mr. Smith - neither an obvious conservative choice.
“She didn’t have the ability to go out and pick anyone she wanted,” said Palin communications director Bill McAllister.
Mr. Smith is a former executive director of a public interest environmental law firm that is working to get the Cook Inlet beluga whale listed as an endangered species.
The governor opposes the listing on grounds that the environmental protections that accompany the classification would hinder the state’s energy development. On the campaign trail, Mrs. Palin frequently cheered “Drill, baby, drill!” to support increased energy exploration and recently unveiled a plan to build more power plants around Alaska’s existing rail system.
Some conservatives have suggested Mrs. Palin should have rejected both candidates by sending them back to the panel. Former Alaska Gov. Frank Murkowski employed a similar tactic to protest previous judicial candidates, but was unsuccessful in getting the panel to give him more choices.
Mr. McAllister dismissed that option, saying his boss “followed the constitution” and “had to pick among two people, which is the way it is set up.”
He noted that several other states use a similar process to choose judges. Former Missouri Gov. Matt Blunt, a Republican who represented the state where the model originated, strongly opposes it.
Some conservatives don’t see the Alaska Constitution as an excuse.
“The fact she wasn’t willing to stand up and fight this is something (they) will seriously question on the national stage,” Family Research Council Action Vice President Tom McCluskey said.
Mrs. Wright of CWA said she’d like to give Mrs. Palin the “benefit of the doubt” but said the Alaska governor will ultimately be held accountable if Judge Christen makes decisions hurting the pro-life cause.
“That’s the responsibility a person takes if they become governor or president,” Mrs. Wright said. “They are responsible for their choices.”
“We’ll be watching,” she added.