The Senate voted unanimously May 14 to confirm Diane Humetewa to become a judge for the U.S. District Court for Arizona, making her the first Native American woman federal judge in U.S. history and the third Native American to ever hold such a position.
The final vote was 96 – 0 in favor of Humetewa, a citizen of the Hopi Tribe who previously worked as a U.S. attorney for Arizona under the George W. Bush administration, as well as an appellate court judge for the Hopi Tribe and as a special counsel and professor at Arizona State University.
Humetewa was nominated by President Barack Obama to the position in 2013 after his administration forced her to step down from her U.S. attorney position in 2009.
Native Americans have long been pushing for increased representation on the federal bench, especially in regions of the country that see high numbers of tribal- and Indian-focused legal cases.
“Let’s hope Diane's confirmation is just the start of a slew of Native American federal judges,” said Chris Stearns (Navajo), who previously served as a counsel to the House Natural Resources Committee. “There is still a massive lack of representation of Indian judges in the federal courts.”
Upon Humetewa’s confirmation, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) issued a statement saying that she is “impeccably qualified” for her new role.
“NCAI greatly appreciates the efforts of the president and Senate in achieving this historic confirmation,” the organization said. “There are many qualified, talented people like Diane Humetewa in Indian country who are able and willing to serve. We eagerly anticipate many more nominations of Native people to the federal bench and other offices.”
Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the non-profit Justice at Stake organization, said in a statement that the interests of justice are best served when judges reflect the broader society.
“With the confirmation of Judge Humetewa, the Senate has taken an important step toward broadening the makeup of the federal courts,” Brandenburg said. “Increasing representation of Native Americans on the federal bench is especially important because federal courts have an outsized authority in defining what's known as federal Indian law. As a result, Native American people and tribal entities appear as parties in federal court proceedings at far higher rates than do non-Native Americans. Given this picture, the current lack of any active federal judges who are Native Americans is absolutely appalling.”
Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, also applauded the confirmation.
“Diane Humetewa is an inspiration to Native people, especially Native women across Indian country,” Tester said in a statement. This is an important appointment and long overdue. I’m pleased that the Senate came together in a bipartisan way to get this done. As the only Native American in active service on the federal bench, Diane provides much-needed expertise on the complexities of federal law and Indian sovereignty.”
Sen. Heidi Heitkamp (D-N.D.) said that it is long overdue for Native Americans to be better represented on the federal bench.
“As the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge, I have no doubt that she will hold the court to the highest standards, as she has done throughout her career,” Heitkamp said in a statement.
Two of Humetewa’s main champions have been Sens. John McCain and Jeff Flake, both Republicans from Arizona.
“Diane Humetewa has an impressive legal background, ranging from work as prosecutor and an appellate court judge to the Hopi Nation to service as U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona,” McCain said in a Senate floor statement just before her confirmation. “Plus, hers is a truly historic nomination. If confirmed, she would be the first Native American woman to ever serve on the federal bench.”
Notably, McCain has led the opposition to another would-be historic nomination: that of Kilpatrick Stockton lawyer Keith Harper, a Cherokee Nation citizen, to become a U.N. human rights ambassador.
Harper’s nomination has been held up in the Senate due to controversies surrounding his work on the Cobell case and questions about his representation.
Tester urged in a recent floor statement that the Senate also moves to confirm Harper.