Indianz.Com > News > Cherokee Nation attorney makes history as first Native judicial nominee in Oklahoma
Sara E. Hill
Sara E. Hill. Photo courtesy Cherokee Nation
Cherokee Nation attorney makes history as first Native judicial nominee in Oklahoma
Wednesday, October 18, 2023

Sara E. Hill, the former attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, is making history as a nominee to the federal bench.

Hill’s nomination to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma was announced by President Joe Biden on Wednesday morning. If confirmed, the Cherokee citizen would be the first Native woman to serve as a federal judge in her home state, a move cheered by the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI).

“NCAI strongly supports President Biden’s nomination of Sara Hill, a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, to be the first-ever Native American woman to sit on the federal bench in the state of Oklahoma,” said Larry Wright, Jr., who serves as executive director of the nation’s largest inter-tribal advocacy organization.

“Sara Hill will bring unparalleled experience in law and policy to our justice system,” Wright, a former chairman of the Ponca Tribe of Nebraska, continued. “NCAI urges the swift confirmation of Ms. Hill as the nomination moves before the U.S. Senate.”

The Native American Rights Fund (NARF), the largest Native legal non-profit, also welcomed the nomination. Together, NCAI and NARF have been working to increase the number of Native federal judges.

“Sara Hill has a strong history of public service and possesses excellent qualifications to be a federal judge,” said NARF executive director John Echohawk, a citizen of the Pawnee Nation. “We applaud the Biden Administration’s selection of this historic nominee and urge her confirmation. She will be a strong addition to the federal judiciary in Oklahoma.”

Hill’s selection continues a history-making streak by Biden, a Democrat. Since taking office in January 2021, he has nominated a record four Native people to the federal bench — the prior three have already been confirmed by the U.S. Senate.

Biden’s actions have led to a small yet significant increase in the number of Native federal jurists. According to NCAI and NARF, Hill would be just the seventh active American Indian or Alaska Native person serving as a U.S. district court judge.

But it’s not just Indian Country hailing the the Democratic president’s achievements. The two U.S. Senators from Oklahoma — both Republicans — are supporting Hill and they expect her to be confirmed as soon as possible.

“As a fellow member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma, I am grateful for Sara Hill’s service to the Tribe, which totals approximately 19 years in the aggregate,” said Sen. Markwayne Mullin (R-Oklahoma), a new member of the Senate.

“Ms. Hill is very familiar with the Northern District of Oklahoma, having previously served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney,” Mullin added, referring to Hill’s service as a federal prosecutor who was able to pursue criminal cases in Indian Country.

Sen. James Lankford (R-Oklahoma) praised Hill’s nomination, as well as that of John D. Russell, whom Biden has selected for a seat on the same federal court in Oklahoma. In a press release on Wednesday, the Republican lawmaker said the Northern District has become “overburdened” with activity.

“Oklahoma is blessed to have many qualified individuals to serve in our courts, but both of these candidates rose to the top after extensive interviews,” Lankford said. “I have personally met with both of them and heard their commitment to the Constitution and strict rule of law.”

“I look forward to the Senate Judiciary Committee advancing the nominations and the full Senate confirming them soon so they are able to fill two vacancies in the very overburdened Northern District Court,” said Lankford.

The Northern District of Oklahoma covers an area in the northeastern part of the state that has seen significant change, especially in the legal landscape. Much of the area, particularly the 14 counties served by the Cherokee Nation, has finally been recognized as Indian Country following a historic decision from the U.S. Supreme Court in 2020.

As the Cherokee Nation’s highest ranking legal official from August 2019 through August 2023, Hill helped her tribe secure recognition of its reservation under the landmark precedent in the McGirt case. In yet another Supreme Court case, she successfully defended the Indian Child Welfare Act from an unprecedented attack that was aimed at eroding the U.S. government’s trust and treaty responsibilities.

And Hill represented the tribe in a lawsuit against some of the largest pharmaceutical companies and distributors in the U.S. Her work led to an opioid settlement that is benefiting all of Indian Country.

“The Cherokee Nation could not be more proud of former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill, who will make an excellent federal judge,” Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. said in a statement on Wednesday. “Deputy Chief and I are so pleased that President Biden announced today that she is among his nominees and call for her prompt confirmation by the U.S. Senate.”

“She is a brilliant attorney and dedicated public servant who possesses the knowledge, demeanor and compassion to serve the country well on the bench,” added Hoskin. “As a female and a citizen of the Cherokee Nation, she not only adds diversity to the ranks of federal judges, she also brings knowledge of Indian Country issues that we need more of among federal judges.”

“Sara Hill will bring to the Northern District the same high level of legal expertise, work ethic and sense of fairness that she brought to her job as Cherokee Nation’s Attorney General during four of the most challenging years in our tribal history,” the chief said.

Hill’s nomination will be sent to the Senate Committee on the Judiciary for an expected confirmation hearing. A business meeting would then be scheduled to advance Hill to the full Senate, which is controlled by Democrats, for final action before she could be seated on the federal court in Oklahoma.

Since 2021, the Senate has confirmed three Native federal judges who were nominated by President Biden. They include Lauren King, a citizen of the Muscogee Nation who is serving on the Western District of Washington, and Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, a citizen of the Navajo Nation who is a judge in the Central District of California.

The third Native person has been identified as Lydia Kay Griggsby, who is a federal judge in Maryland. The White House did not provide a tribal affiliation when Biden announced her nomination in April 2021.

Sara E. Hill: Nominee for the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma
Note: Biographical information provided by the White House.
Sara E. Hill served as Attorney General of the Cherokee Nation from 2019 to 2023. She is currently a lawyer in private practice. Ms. Hill previously served the Cherokee Nation as Secretary of Natural Resources from 2015 to 2019, Deputy Attorney General from 2014 to 2015, and an Assistant Attorney General from 2004 to 2014. From 2014 to 2015, she served as a Special Assistant U.S. Attorney in the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Northern District of Oklahoma. Ms. Hill received her J.D. from the University of Tulsa in 2003 and her B.A., cum laude, from Northeastern State University in 2000.