Indian Country Today
A pair of tribal citizens is blazing trails this November in races for top state courts.
The first Native American to serve on Washington’s state Supreme Court is hoping to maintain the seat she was appointed to late last year, while Michigan’s election appears to feature the first Indigenous person ever nominated to run for the state’s high court.
Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Isleta Pueblo, was sworn in as a Washington Supreme Court justice in January after the state’s Democratic governor chose her to replace a retiring judge. In Michigan, the Libertarian Party nominated Katherine Mary Nepton, Pekuakamiulnuatsh First Nation, to run in a crowded race where the top two vote-getters are elected.
Two other Native Americans serve as state Supreme Court justices in the U.S. — Dustin Rowe, Chickasaw Nation, of Oklahoma, and Anne McKeig, White Earth Nation, of Minnesota. Their terms expire in 2023 and 2024, respectively.
Montoya-Lewis is seeking a six-year term in a nonpartisan race against Federal Way Municipal Court Judge Dave Larson, who ran unsuccessfully for a different Supreme Court seat in 2016.
Montoya-Lewis has experience as a Superior Court judge and a tribal court judge. In her campaign video, she says she is honored to serve as the state's first Native American Supreme Court justice because "representation matters."
Tribes, Native leaders and elected Native officials in the state have issued support for her.
Seattle City Council member Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, who was the state’s first Native Superior Court judge, praised Montoya-Lewis in a joint news release with other Native leaders.
“Indigenous women are the North Star in our tribal communities,” Juarez said. “Justice Montoya-Lewis’ power and presence on our state's highest court cannot be understated or denied. She is now the North Star that all Washingtonians — especially our women and daughters — can gaze up at in search of justice and hope.“
Slate.com recently called the Washington state Supreme Court the country's most diverse court.
Earlier this month, Montoya-Lewis wrote a unanimous opinion in favor of the Washington Indian Child Welfare Act, the state’s version of the federal law. She and other justices overturned a lower court ruling involving two toddlers with Native heritage.
Katherine Mary Nepton
Nepton, 37, is seeking an eight-year term on Michigan’s top court, and she expects a tough race.
Although the election is nonpartisan, candidates may be nominated to the ballot by party convention. Nepton and Kerry Lee Morgan were nominated by the Libertarian Party.
Michigan’s Supreme Court currently has four judges with Republican affiliations and three with Democratic affiliations. Nepton ran unsuccessfully for state Senate as a Libertarian in 2018.
“It’s kind of interesting running for something where it’s less likely that I’m actually going to win in November, and that’s fine for me,” Nepton said. “My goal right now is to raise awareness to the fact that in Michigan's 180-something years of existence, I’m the first Indigenous person to be invited to the valley. That's way too many years to have passed for not bringing Indigenous people into the fold in Michigan.”
Nepton is believed to be the first tribal citizen to be on the ballot for state Supreme Court, according to the Michigan Supreme Court Historical Society.
The other candidates are: Democratic nominees Elizabeth Welch and incumbent Bridget Mary McCormack; Republican nominees Brock Swartzle and Mary Kelly; and Susan Hubbard, who is not affiliated with a political party. Stephen Markman is retiring and not seeking reelection. He’s affiliated with the Republican Party.
Nepton, an attorney in Lansing, Michigan, said she brings more than her law experience into her decisions. She grew up in Connecticut and lived in Florida before moving to Michigan for law school in 2010. She said she’s traveled to a dozen countries and grew up with her parents fostering more than 15 children from a variety of backgrounds.
“My experiences are not going to be the guy who sits there and reads a book,” she said. “I have more of that worldly background that I think is missing in a lot of places in politics.”
Anne McKeig and Dustin Rowe
McKeig was appointed to the Minnesota Supreme Court in 2016 by then-Gov. Mark Dayton, a Democrat, and was elected to a six-year term in 2018.
She previously served as a judge in Hennepin County District Court after being appointed by then-Gov. Tim Palenty, a Republican, in 2008. Most of her focus was in family court in Hennepin County, which includes Minneapolis.
Rowe was appointed to his position in 2019 by Republican Gov. Kevin Stitt.
Before being appointed to the state’s highest court, Rowe, 45, was a Chickasaw Nation District Court judge. He replaced a former justice appointed to a federal bench. Rowe, a mayor of Tishomingo, Oklahoma, at the age of 18, ran unsuccessfully in 2012 for the U.S. House. He was defeated in the Republican primary.
Dalton Walker, Red Lake Anishinaabe, is a national correspondent at Indian Country Today. Follow him on Twitter: @daltonwalker Walker is based in Phoenix and enjoys Arizona winters.
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