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Sunshine Suzanne Sykes
Sunshine Suzanne Sykes. Photo courtesy Fair Housing Council of Riverside County
President Biden nominates another Native woman to federal bench
Wednesday, December 15, 2021

President Joe Biden continues to make history with his judicial nominations, announcing another Native woman to serve on the federal bench.

The nomination of Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, who is a citizen of the Navajo Nation, is historic in more ways than one. She would be the first Navajo citizen in the federal judiciary and the first Native person to serve on the federal bench in California, the state with the largest number of American Indians and Alaska Natives.

Should she be confirmed by the U.S. Senate, Sykes would be just the fifth Native federal judge actively serving in the country. And she’s only the third Native woman in U.S. history to be chosen for the bench.

“These choices also continue to fulfill the President’s promise to ensure that the nation’s courts reflect the diversity that is one of our greatest assets as a country — both in terms of personal and professional backgrounds,” the White House said on Wednesday as Sykes and eight other nominees were announced.

Sykes comes to the stage with significant experience in law and public policy. She currently serves as a judge for the Superior Court of Riverside County, home to a large number of tribes in southern California. She is the first Native judge in the county’s history.

“Riverside has one of the largest Native communities in the state, with something like 17 tribes, and not one Native judge, so the bench was not reflecting the community,” Sykes told Stanford Lawyer Magazine, explaining why she set her sights on serving the county.

Before becoming a judge, Sykes worked as an attorney for the 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.

“When I was a lawyer working with juveniles, I saw a lot of instances across the state where judges didn’t really understand the Indian Child Welfare Act and the reasons behind its passing in Congress in the 1970s,” Sykes told the magazine of Stanford Law School, where she earned her J.D. “They didn’t really understand Native culture.”

Posted by The Fair Housing Council of Riverside County, Inc. on Monday, April 7, 2014
In April 2014, Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, second from left, was honored by the Fair Housing Council of Riverside County as one of the organization’s “Champions for Justice” in the community.

Family history also plays a big part in Sykes’s advocacy. She told Stanford Lawyer Magazine that her Navajo grandparents were removed from their homes on the Navajo Nation and sent hundreds of miles away to the Sherman Institute in Riverside County. The facility, now known as the Sherman Indian High School, continues to be operated by the Bureau of Indian Education.

“Both of my grandparents were taken from the Navajo Reservation and put into the Sherman school,” Sykes recalled. “All the children were forced to cut their hair and wear non-traditional clothes, and they weren’t allowed to speak their traditional languages or practice their traditional ceremonies.”

According to the magazine profile, Sykes was born on the Arizona portion of the Navajo Nation. She spent her early years there and in a border town on the New Mexico side of the reservation.

Sykes also has a long connection to California, where she attended Stanford University as an undergraduate prior to law school. She was an intern at California Indian Legal Services and later became a staff attorney there, according to biographical information provided by the White House.

Sykes also interned at DNA People’s Legal Services, which is based on the Navajo Nation. The non-profit provides free civil legal services to low-income people on the largest reservation in the United States and on other reservations in the southwest.

In May, President Biden nominated Lauren King, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, to serve as a federal judge in Washington. She 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.

Both courts hear cases affecting a large number of tribes in their respective states. As for Sykes, if confirmed, she would be serving on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, whose area includes tribes in parts of central and southern California.

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 in September 2019.

Judicial picks go before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary for nomination hearings. The panel is chaired by Sen. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois). The ranking Republican is Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-Iowa).

Following a hearing, the committee must hold a business meeting in order to advance a particular nominee. From there, the candidate can be considered by the full Senate, which is controlled by Democrats but whose membership is equally divided between Democrats and Republicans.

Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes: Nominee for the United States District Court for the Central District of California
The following biographical information about Sunshine Suzanne Sykes was provided by the White House.

Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes has served as a California Superior Court Judge on the Superior Court of Riverside County since 2013. She currently presides over a civil litigation department and is the presiding judge of the appellate division. From 2005 to 2013, Judge Sykes served as a Deputy County Counsel in the Office of County Counsel for Riverside County, handling litigation on behalf of government entities and serving as a juvenile dependency trial attorney representing the California Department of Public Social Services on matters concerning abused and neglected children. From 2003 to 2005, Judge Sykes worked as a contract attorney for the Juvenile Defense Panel at the Southwest Justice Center. From 2001 to 2003, she was a staff attorney for California Indian Legal Services. Judge Sykes is a member of the Navajo Nation and is a descendant of the Coyote Pass-Jemez Clan.

Judge Sykes received her J.D. from Stanford Law School in 2001 and her B.A from Stanford University in 1997.

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