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WATCH: Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) supports first Native federal judge in California
Navajo Nation citizen makes history as newest federal judge
Monday, May 23, 2022

A citizen of the Navajo Nation has made history as the first Native federal judge in the state of California.

By a vote of 51 to 45 last Wednesday, the U.S. Senate confirmed Sunshine Suzanne Sykes to serve as a U.S. District Judge for the Central District of California. She is the first Navajo citizen to join the federal judiciary.

“On behalf of the Navajo Nation, we congratulate Judge Sykes on her historic nomination and becoming the first Diné person to serve as a U.S. District Court Judge,” President Jonathan Nez said after the historic vote. “Her upbringing, exceptional experience, and commitment to serving the public and the justice system will bring new and unique perspectives to the justice system.”

“We will continue to pray for her continued success as she serves in the U.S. District Court and we thank her for being an inspiration to our young Navajo people,” Nez said in a news release.

Sykes, who was born on the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation, has developed strong ties to California. She received her undergraduate and law degrees from Stanford University and started off her professional career at the California Indian Legal Services, where she began to develop her expertise in law and policy matters affecting American Indians and Alaska Natives.

In 2005, Sykes became an attorney for Riverside County, handling juvenile dependency issues and matters affecting abused and neglected children. Her work helped shape her desire to ensure that judges understand key federal laws like the Indian Child Welfare Act

Then in 2013, Sykes became a judge for the Superior Court in Riverside County. She was the first Native judge in the county, which is home to more than a dozen tribes, including the Pechanga Band of Luiseno Indians, whose leader is among those hailing her confirmation to the federal bench.

“Judge Sykes’ extensive knowledge and experience are vitally important for the federal judiciary, particularly in California where countless federal Indian law issues arise among the more than 100 Tribal Nations within the state,” said Pechanga Chairman Marc Macarro, who also serves as Vice President of the National Congress of American Indians.

“NCAI congratulates Judge Sykes on her historic confirmation and furthering the representation of Natives in the federal judiciary,” Macarro said in a news release. “It is critical, now more than ever, that more qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives be appointed to the federal courts, especially given how much of tribal life is controlled by federal law and the courts’ interpretations of those laws.”

Even though California is home to more than the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives, the federal judiciary has never fully reflected their interests until now. As a judge for the Central District, Sykes would be assigned cases affecting tribal interests in seven counties, including Riverside, San Bernardino and Santa Barbara.

“Over the past nine years, she has presided over nearly 100 cases,” Sen. Alex Padilla (D-California) said of Sykes and her work in Riverside County.

“She will bring an impressive legal record, work ethic, and sense of empathy to her judgeship for the Central District,” Padilla said in support of Sykes during a speech on the Senate floor last Wednesday, ahead of the confirmation vote.

As a member of the Senate Committee on the Judiciary, Padilla helped advance Sykes’s nomination in the chamber. In his floor speech, he noted that “our current federal bench is not representative of the diversity of our democracy.”

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

Tribes and their advocates have long highlighted the lack of representation in the judiciary. Nationwide, only a handful of tribal citizens have been nominated and confirmed as federal judges — almost all of them taking place in the last decade.

“NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund (NARF) have long advocated for increased Native representation in the federal judiciary,” said NARF Executive Director John Echohawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation. “It benefits everyone when federal judges understand the unique relationship between the United States and tribal nations and reflect a more diverse swath of the districts that they serve.”

Before nominating Sykes last December, President Joe Biden in May 2021 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.

Sykes and King are part of a small yet growing group of Native women in the federal judiciary. The very first was 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.

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.

According to the American Constitution Center, fewer than 0.5 percent of federal judges are American Indian or Alaska Native. When it comes to gender, only 36 percent of federal judges are women.

President Biden has begun to shift the landscape. So far, 76 percent of his judicial nominees have been women, according to the center. Additionally, his picks have leaned more toward people of color, including African Americans, Latinos or Hispanics and Asian Americans.

Still, the judiciary remains overwhelmingly White and overwhelmingly male, according to the center, whose figures are based on data made available by the Federal Judicial Center, the research and education agency of the judicial branch of the U.S. government.

All of the tribal citizens in the federal judiciary serve on the district court level. There has never been an American Indian or Alaska Native judge at the appellate court, according to data posted on Nor has one served on the Supreme Court, the highest court in the land.

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

Despite the landmark nature of Biden’s judicial picks, Republicans have not been very supportive. Only three GOP members of the Senate voted in support of Sykes on May 18. Only six voted in support of King last October.

“The president is nominating and the Senate is confirming consistently well-qualified judges to the bench to fill vacancies and address a judicial emergency,” Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-California) said last week.

According to the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, of which California is a part, Sykes is filling a seat on the Central District of California that has been vacant since March 2020. The Central District appears to have a large case load, an issue that Sykes helped address through her work on the county court.

“The U.S. District Court for the Central District of California had 14,919 new case filings in calendar year 2021,” a May 18 news release from the 9th Circuit states. “The court is authorized 28 judgeships and currently has four vacancies.”

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