Senate confirms first-ever Native American federal judge in California

The Senate voted on Wednesday to confirm Sunshine Suzanne Sykes to a lifetime seat on the United States District Court for the Central District of California, making her the state’s first-ever Native American federal judge and the fifth Native American woman in the history of the United States to sit in federal court. to research.

The Senate upheld Sykes, 51-45.

All the Democrats present voted for her, as well as three Republicans: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (SC) and Lisa Murkowski (Alaska). All other Republicans present voted no. Sens Roy Blunt (R-Mo.), Kevin Cramer (RN.D.), Jacky Rosen (D-Nevada) and Chris Van Hollen (D-Md.) did not vote.

Sykes, 48, has served as a California Superior Court judge since 2013. She previously served as an associate attorney for Riverside County and a contract attorney for the defense panel at the Southwest Justice Center. From 2001 to 2003, Sykes also worked as an attorney for California Indian Legal Services.

Sykes joins four other Native American judges actively serving on the federal bench out of nearly 900 licensed federal judges. These four are all women, and they are US District Judges Lauren King, Diane Humetewa, Ada Brown, Lydia Kay Griggsby.

Carl Tobias, a federal court appointments expert and professor of law at the University of Richmond, called it “remarkable” that it took so long for a Native American to fill a federal court seat in California, which is home to 109 federally recognized tribes.

“Federal courts can have many profound effects on myriad Native American individuals and tribes,” Tobias said, listing reasons why diversity matters to the courts. “Ethnic, gender, and experiential diversity improves judicial decision-making, limits biases that can undermine litigation in federal courts, and increases public confidence in federal courts when their judges reflect America.”

For some context on the significance of Sykes’ confirmation, only seven Native Americans have ever served as federal judges in the 230-year history of US federal courts. That’s out of more than 4,200 people who have served as Article III judges (lifetime judges in US district courts, appellate courts, and the Supreme Court). Besides the five judges mentioned earlier, including Sykes, the other two were U.S. District Judges Michael Burrage and Frank Howell Seay.

There has never been an aboriginal judge in an American appellate court.

Sunshine Suzanne Sykes is sworn in during her Senate Judiciary Committee confirmation hearing on Feb. 1, 2022. She is now only the fifth Native American woman to serve as a federal judge for life.

Bill Clark via Getty Images

Sykes’ confirmation continues President Joe Biden’s efforts to make the nation’s federal courts more diverse, both in terms of demographics like race and gender, but also in terms of career paths. His judicial nominees mark a huge departure from the prototype of white male corporate lawyers almost always sought for lifelong federal judgeships.

Of the 40 lifelong federal judges Biden confirmed in his first year in office, 32 are women, 27 are people of color, 21 are women of color, and 27 have diverse work backgrounds. Fifteen are former public defenders.

Notably, of the five Native American women who have already been confirmed as federal judges for life, three are Biden candidates: Sykes, King and Griggsby.

“Judge Sykes’ extensive knowledge and experience is vitally important to federal justice, especially in California, where countless federal Indian law issues arise among the state’s more than 100 tribal nations” said Mark Macarro, first vice president of the US National Congress. Indians, said in a statement.

“It is critical, now more than ever, that more qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives be appointed to federal courts,” he said, “especially given the share of the tribal life that is controlled by federal law and interpretations of those laws by the courts.”


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