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Sunshine Suzanne Sykes
Image: National Congress of American Indians and Native American Rights Fund
Tribal leaders hail historic nomination of Native woman to federal bench
Friday, December 17, 2021

Tribal and Native leaders are welcoming the historic nomination of Sunshine Suzanne Sykes to the federal bench.

Sykes, a citizen of the Navajo Nation, would be the first Native federal judge in California and only the fifth Native judge in U.S. history should she be confirmed by the U.S. Senate. Her nomination was announced by the White House on Wednesday.

“On behalf of the Navajo Nation, we congratulate Judge Sykes on her historic nomination. Judge Sykes’ extensive experience demonstrates her commitment to serving the public and the justice system,” President Jonathan Nez said in a news release. “We wish her well in this new capacity with the U.S. District Court and we thank her for being an inspiration to our young Navajo people.”

“We also thank the Biden-Harris administration and we look forward to having more appointments that reflect the diversity of this country,” Nez said of President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.

Since 2013, Sykes has served as a judge for the Superior Court of Riverside County, home to a large number of tribes in southern California, a state that boasts the largest population of American Indians and Alaska Natives. She is the first Native judge in the county’s history.

“I am delighted about Judge Sykes’ nomination to the federal district court,” said Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul, the highest-ranking legal official on the largest reservation in the United States. “Native American representation on the bench is critically important because it makes us feel like we are also full participants within the federal judicial system.”

Sykes, who was born on the Arizona portion of the reservation, earned her J.D. from Stanford Law School in 2001 and her B.A from Stanford University in 1997. McPaul called her an inspiration to young Native people who are pursuing legal careers.

“Her accomplishments also demonstrate to Native law students that it is possible to achieve your ambitions in the justice system. Yéego Judge Sykes,” said McPaul, using a Navajo phrase that emphasizes hard work and intensity.

Sykes is the second Native woman to be nominated to the federal bench by Biden, who took office in January. The first was Lauren King, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation, who was confirmed for a judgeship in Washington in October.

“NCAI strongly supports President Biden’s nomination of Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, a citizen of the Navajo Nation and descendant of the Coyote Pass-Jemez Clan, to be the first-ever Native American judge to sit on the federal bench in the state of California,” President Fawn Sharp of the National Congress of American Indians said in a news release on Thursday.

Besides King, only two Native women have been nominated and confirmed as federal judges. Diane Humetewa, a citizen of the Hopi Tribe, sits on the U.S. District Court for the District of Arizona, and Ada Brown, a citizen of the Choctaw Nation, serves on the Northern District of Texas.

“Judge Sykes will bring unparalleled experience in law and policy to our justice system.” said Sharp, the vice president of the Quinault Nation. “NCAI urges the swift confirmation of Judge Sykes as the nomination moves before the U.S. Senate.”

Before becoming a judge, Sykes worked as 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.

“Judge Sykes possesses excellent qualifications to be a federal judge,” said John Echohawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation who serves as the executive director of the Native American Rights Fund. “She has extensive judicial experience and a strong record of public service. We applaud her nomination and urge her confirmation. She will be a strong addition to the federal judiciary in California.”

Judicial picks go before the Senate Committee on the Judiciary for nomination hearings. A hearing has not yet been scheduled for Sykes.

“We congratulate Judge Sykes on her recent appointment. She has remarkable experience that will benefit the U.S. District Court system,” said Vice President Myron Lizer of the Navajo Nation. “We pray for Judge Sykes and her family as she begins her new endeavors with the U.S. District Court.”

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President Biden nominates another Native woman to federal bench (December 15, 2021)
Indian Country cheers nomination of Muscogee Nation citizen to federal bench (May 13, 2021)