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Indianz.Com Video: Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes – Senate Committee on the Judiciary – February 1, 2022
Native judge awaits movement on historic nomination to federal bench
Monday, March 7, 2022

WASHINGTON, D.C. — The Senate Committee on the Judiciary has once again scheduled a meeting to advance the nomination of another Native woman to the federal bench.

Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, has been waiting for committee movement for more than a month. Her confirmation hearing took place on February 1, when she spoke of her immense pride in her tribal background.

“I would not be here today without the sacrifices and resilience of so many that came before me,” Sykes said in her opening statement to the committee.

“I come from a long line of strong Mą’ii deeshgiizhinii Navajo women,” she added, using the Navajo language term for her clan.

“The seed that brought me here existed long ago,” Sykes said at the hearing in the nation’s capital. “It was held by my ancestors and nurtured by my great-grandmother, when she raised her family while tending sheep on the Navajo Reservation.”

“It grew in my grandmother as she entered life at Indian boarding schools,” Sykes said in reference to one of the many strong Navajo women in her background. “It sprouted in my mother when, as a little girl, I saw her strength — even when she herself thought she had none — and it flourished in me.”

indianz · Sunshine Suzanne Sykes
Indianz.Com Audio: Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes – Senate Committee on the Judiciary – February 1, 2022

During the nomination hearing, Sykes did not face any outright hostile questions from any members of the committee. Two Republicans pressed her on matters involving interpretations of federal laws, which she answered with promises to follow all applicable standards.

“I have had occasion where, in a civil matter, I may not have known something and I do the research necessary to discover and to research what ever it is that I need to do to make myself familiar with that,” Sykes told Sen. John Kennedy (R-Louisiana).

Sen. Marsha Blackburn (R-Tennessee) asked about a specific case from California, where Sykes serves as a judge for the Superior Court of Riverside County. She noted that her position on a state law affecting booking fees for criminal defendants was later confirmed as the right one.

“I did not insert any personal preference and it was later found by our appellate district that in fact my interpretation was correct,” Sykes said in reference to the eventual resolution of the case, People of the State of California v. Kimsey.

Senate Committee on the Judiciary: Nominations Hearing – February 1, 2022

Sykes otherwise was warmly embraced by the legislative panel. Both Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) and Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) highlighted the historic nature of a judicial nomination in a state with the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

“She began her career with California Indian Legal Services, where she worked to address domestic violence issues in Native communities,” Feinstein said of Sykes and her work prior to becoming a state court judge. “She has spent two years with the Juvenile Defense Panel where she worked as an advocate on behalf of minors in juvenile dependency and delinquency cases.”

“In both of these roles, she has become a real expert in legal issues related to the Indian Child Welfare Act,” Feinstein said of the landmark federal law whose fate is now in the hands of the U.S Supreme Court.

California is home to more than 100 tribes, including more than a dozen in Riverside County. Sykes has been a judge there since 2013, when she became the first Native person to sit on the bench in the county.

“Over the past nine years, Judge Sykes has presided over nearly 100 civil, criminal and appellate cases,” said Padilla, a new member of the Senate. “She is a leader of the Superior Court, appointed as presiding judge over the appellate division in 2019.”

“She brings an impressive legal work ethic and sense of empathy as a judge for the central district,” Padilla added. “If confirmed, she’ll be the first native American to serve on a federal court in California.”

Despite the strong support shown by Democrats, who control the Senate, Sykes still awaits movement on her nomination. She was on the agenda for a business meeting on February 17 that was canceled due to a change in the schedule for the overall chamber.

A subsequent business meeting on March 3 with Sykes on the agenda was canceled at the last minute, amid some unrelated issues. Feinstein’s husband, Richard Charles Blum, passed away at the start of the week and she stayed home in California following the loss.

Padilla tested positive for COVID-19 at the start of the work week and he too stayed away from the U.S. Capitol. Both he and Feinstein missed the State of the Union on March 2.

A business meeting on March 10 now marks the third time Sykes is on the committee’s agenda. A total of nine nominees, including six for the federal bench, are due to be considered on Thursday.

Sunshine Suzanne Sykes
Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, a nominee to be a U.S. District Judge for the Central District Of California, testifies at a Senate Judiciary Committee hearing in Washington, D.C., on February 1, 2022. Photo: REUTERS/Elizabeth Frantz

Assuming Sykes is approved by the committee, the next step in the process would be a vote on the floor of the Senate. There is no timeline for a final confirmation vote but Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-Hawaii) is already looking forward to that historic day.

“Congratulations,” Hirono said at the hearing on February 1 as she brought up the many broken promises of the U.S. government toward Native peoples. “You will be one of the few Native Americans to ever sit on the federal courts, should you be confirmed.”

If confirmed as the first Native federal judge in California, Sykes joins another historic nominee. Last May, President Joe Biden nominated Lauren King, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, to serve as a federal judge in Washington.

King was confirmed by the Senate by a vote of 55 to 44 on October 5, making her the first Native judge in the state. She serves on the United States District Court for the Western District of Washington.

King is only the third Native woman to serve as a federal judge. The first is Diane Humetewa, a citizen of the Hopi Tribe who was nominated to the bench by then-Democratic president Barack Obama in 2014. She serves on the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona.

Additionally, Ada Brown, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, serves as judge for the Northern District of Texas. She was nominated by Republican former president Donald Trump and was confirmed to the bench in September 2019.

Senate Committee on the Judiciary Notice
Executive Business Meeting (March 10, 2022)

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