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Carina Dominguez
Indian Country Today

The first Native federal judge in California’s history was confirmed by the U.S. Senate Wednesday, becoming only the seventh Indigenous federal judge ever named to the bench.

Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, 48, Diné, was appointed to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California. She is the first Navajo Nation citizen to be named a federal judge.

She was confirmed to the lifetime appointment by a 51-45 Senate vote, along with two other judges – Jennifer Louise Rochon to the Southern District of New York and Trina L. Thompson to the Northern District of California.

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Navajo Nation President Jonathan Nez congratulated Sykes on her confirmation, saying she’s an inspiration to Indigenous youth.

“On behalf of the Navajo Nation, we congratulate Judge Sykes on her historic nomination and becoming the first Diné person to serve as a U.S. District Court Judge,” Nez said in a statement. “Her upbringing, exceptional experience, and commitment to serving the public and the justice system will bring new and unique perspectives to the justice system.”

The National Congress of American Indians and the Native American Rights Fund issued a joint statement saying Sykes’ legal experience and perspective make her well-qualified to serve on the federal bench.

“Judge Sykes’ extensive knowledge and experience are vitally important for the federal judiciary, particularly in California where countless federal Indian law issues arise among the more than 100 Tribal Nations within the state,” NCAI First Vice President Mark Macarro noted in the statement.

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“It is critical, now more than ever, that more qualified American Indians and Alaska Natives be appointed to the federal courts, especially given how much of tribal life is controlled by federal law and the courts’ interpretations of those laws,” he said.

NARF Executive Director John Echohawk said Sykes will bring a new perspective to the bench.

“NCAI and the Native American Rights Fund have long advocated for increased Native representation in the federal judiciary,” Echohawk said. “It benefits everyone when federal judges understand the unique relationship between the United States and Tribal Nations and reflect a more diverse swath of the districts that they serve.”

With her confirmation, Sykes became the fourth active Native federal judge in the nation, according to the statement.

Sykes previously was a Riverside County Superior Court judge, and had served in that position since 2013. She spent years working for California Indian Legal Services as a juvenile defense attorney with the Southwest Justice Center and as a Riverside County Attorney. She received her law degree from Stanford Law School in 2001 and a bachelor’s degree from Stanford University in 1997.

The appointments bring the total number of judges nominated by President Joe Biden to 63, a move that opens doors for Indigenous youths, Navajo officials said.

“Her accomplishments also demonstrate to all Native law students that it is possible to accomplish your goals in the justice system,” said Navajo Nation Attorney General Doreen N. McPaul.

“Yéego Judge Sykes!”

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