ICYMI: President Obama Nominates First Native American Woman to Federal Bench

It’s no secret that, since his first term in the oval office, President Barack Obama has pushed to diversify the federal judiciary—from the highest court down to the Court of International Trade. It’s a priority that’s come with a list of judicial firsts since he assumed office in 2009—most notably the appointment of Supreme Court Justice Sonia Sotomayor, who is both the first Hispanic woman and first person with a disability to serve on SCOTUS.

With last month’s eight nominations for judgeships on United State district courts, President Obama seems poised to continue this trend with the selection of Diane Humetewa for the U.S. District Court for Arizona. Humetewa’s nomination is one of substantial significance: as noted first by Indian Country Today, Humetewa is the first Native American woman nominated to the federal bench. She would also become the first Native American woman and only active tribal member to serve on the federal bench if appointed and confirmed. Yet, despite being historic, Humetewa’s selection was (unsurprisingly) covered by few news outlets and blogs.

Humetewa, a citizen of the Hopi Nation in northeastern Arizona, is no stranger to firsts, though. In 2006, the distinguished legal expert and former Hopi Tribe Appellate Court judge was confirmed as the first Native American woman in the country to serve as a U.S. Attorney. Previously having worked as Arizona’s assistant U.S. attorney, Humetewa was appointed for this state post by former President George W. Bush on the recommendation of Senator John McCain (R-Az.). It’s a role she would serve in for three years—Humetewa resigned in 2009 in part because, it would seem, of the political process involved in the changing of presidencies. Humetewa now works at Arizona State University as Special Advisor to Office of the President on American Indian Affairs and as Special Counsel to Office of General Counsel.

The day following the announcement, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), which has pushed for decades increased Native American representation in government, released a statement endorsing Humetewa’s nomination as well as that of fellow U.S. District Court for Arizona pick John Joseph Tuchi, reported Indian Country Today. (Tuchi, Arizona’s Chief Assistant U.S. Attorney, served as Interim U.S. Attorney after Humetewa’s departure, and was a tribal liaison for the office from 2009 to 2012.) NCAI President Jefferson Keel stated the nominations are “a significant step forward” for both Indian country and the federal courts, and that the NCAI urges the Senate “to move quickly” on their confirmations, while First Vice President Juana Majel underscored how Humetewa’s nomination makes this year “truly a landmark year for Native women.” The National Native American Bar Association and Navajo Nation President Ben Shelley also released statements directly applauding Humetewa’s nomination.

Her selection, however, also shows the idle side of diversity in government-appointed judgeships. Of the 53 pending judicial nominees, Humetewa is the only known Native American nominated, although there are over 2,500 licensed American Indian lawyers practicing in the United States according to the 2000 Census (the numbers aren’t better elsewhere—of the 53, there are only two Hispanic, two openly gay, and three Asian American nominees currently in Senate.) What’s more, despite the 874 seats on the federal bench—677 of which belong to district courts and 179 to the Court of Appeals—Humetewa would only be the third American Indian in the history of the federal judiciary to serve if she is confirmed. (This would have gone to Arvo Mikkanen, a Kiowa citizen, who was nominated by President Obama in February 2011, but had his nomination returned by the Senate 10 months later without much explanation, reported Indian Country Today.) There are 95 judicial vacancies in total and Humetewa’s nomination is for a seat vacated in January of 2011.

The first American Indian to serve on the bench wouldn’t come until 1979, when former President Jimmy Carter would nominate Frank Howell Seay to the U.S. District Court of Oklahoma’s Eastern District. (Seay, who served from 1980 – 1986, wasn’t aware of his Cherokee roots until after his confirmation.) The second to be confirmed to the district courts was Billy Michael Burrage, a member of the Choctaw Nation, who was nominated former President Bill Clinton in 1994 and kept his seat until he resigned in 2001.

It’s a lagging history notwithstanding the 5.2 million people (or 1.7 percent of the population) in the United States who identify either alone or partially as American Indian or Alaska Native, as Maribel Hermosillo pointed out over at PolicyMic. Pacific Islanders are similarly far underrepresented in judiciary: despite Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders making up around 1.4 million of the U.S. population, only two have served on the federal bench, with Derrick Kahala Watson recently confirmed to the U.S. District Court of Hawaii on April 18, 2013.

Whether Humetewa will make history again has yet to be seen. The Senate Judiciary Committee postponed its judicial nominations hearing that was scheduled for Wednesday, October 9th. No word yet on when that meeting will be rescheduled, and when the committee will take up the September 20th nominations.

Annamarya Scaccia

[Writer’s Note: Prior to publishing this post on my website side, I’ve submitted the above post to a couple of news outlets, both of which rejected the piece for separate reasons–the government shutdown and lack of timeliness, respectively. ]

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