As he introduced Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Isleta Pueblo, on Dec. 4 as the newest member of the Washington state Supreme Court, Gov. Jay Inslee noted that because Montoya-Lewis is the first Native American to serve on the state’s high court “many will focus on the historic nature of this appointment.”
“And it’s entirely appropriate to do so,” Inslee said.
“But I want the record to show that Judge Montoya-Lewis is the kind of exceptional judge I want serving on the highest court in our state because she is the best person for the job.”
Montoya-Lewis’s appointment to a Supreme Court vacancy capped a week-long political roller-coaster ride that will not soon be forgotten in Indian Country or in the state.
First, Jeff Morris, Tsimshian, resigned from the state House of Representatives after 24 years of service. Morris, widely considered an expert on alternative energy and smart technology, is leaving to direct a global smart-tech firm. Among those hoping to be appointed to complete his House term: civil rights activist Marco Morales, Indigenous Mexican.
Then, Maia Bellon, Mescalero Apache, announced her retirement as director of the state Department of Ecology. She is leaving to return to law. “My current plans are to enjoy some time off reconnecting with my family and friends,” she said in her retirement announcement. “I then intend to dust off my law degree and try my hand at private practice focusing on environmental law and policy.”
The departures of Bellon and Morris will leave a void. Bellon is the first and only Native American to serve in a state cabinet-level position here. Morris is one of only three Native Americans in the 147-member state legislature; the others are state Sen. John McCoy, Tulalip; and state Rep. Debra Lekanoff, Tlingit.
Then, Teresa Noreen Taylor, Lummi, lost her bid for a second term on the City Council in Ferndale, a city next to the Lummi Reservation. She was losing by two votes in initial election results, then was tied in two subsequent recounts. The election was settled by coin toss – in favor of Taylor’s opponent -- Dec. 4 in the county elections office.
All of this follows by one month the election or reelection of at least 15 Native Americans to county office, city councils and school boards in this state with 29 federally-recognized Indigenous nations.
But on Dec. 4, the day belonged to Montoya-Lewis.
Video: Raquel Montoya-Lewis was appointed to the Washington State Supreme Court on Dec. 4.
Montoya-Lewis, 51, has more than 20 years of judicial experience, including five years as an elected Whatcom County Superior Court judge. She served as chief judge for the Nooksack Tribe, Upper Skagit Tribe and Lummi Nation, and taught for more than 12 years at Western Washington University. She received the Children’s Advocacy Center Community Leadership Award in 2018 for her work to protect children from exploitation.
“I have served as a judge for 20 years, in tribal courts and in Superior Court, and I know the struggles and challenges that land people in front of our hardworking judges at every level of our judicial system,” Montoya-Lewis said when her appointment was announced.
“I bring each of the stories I have heard over my career to being a Supreme Court Justice and I hope to honor and serve the people, my colleagues, my ancestors, and my family with the integrity and honor each of them have shown me over these many years.”
Inslee said Montoya-Lewis embodies qualities that every judicial officer should possess.
“Judge Montoya-Lewis brings intellectual humility, courage of conviction, and a personal commitment to improving access to justice for all of our communities,” Inslee said. “I look forward to her professional mark in our state history and on our state’s highest court …
“Whether we spoke to the lawyers who practiced before her or the judges who reviewed her work, we’ve heard one thing over and over -- that she’s exceptional. Some even used the word ‘superstar.’ Everyone kept telling us she is the best trial judge they’ve ever had.”
As Whatcom County prosecuting attorney, Eric Richey has argued numerous cases in Montoya-Lewis’s courtroom.
Throughout my career as a prosecutor, I have had the distinct pleasure of being in front of many judges,” Richey said. “While they all have strengths in certain areas, Judge Montoya-Lewis has — without a doubt — set the bar for excellence. I am thrilled Judge Montoya-Lewis is going to be our next Supreme Court justice.”
The Supreme Court justice that Montoya-Lewis is succeeding, Mary Fairhurst, also welcomed her appointment.
“I’m very excited to have Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis taking my place,” Fairhurst said. “She follows a long line of wonderful justices to serve in [Supreme Court] Position 3, including Chief Justice William H. Williams, Justice William C. Goodloe and Justice Charles Z. Smith. I’m thrilled to welcome our first Native American to serve on this court. I only regret that I won’t be able to work with her.”
Other high-profile leaders
In addition to local, regional and state offices, Native Americans serve in other high-profile positions in Washington State.
Denise Juneau, Mandan Hidatsa, is superintendent of Seattle Public Schools. She formerly served as Montana’s superintendent of public instruction and ran for Congress there in 2016.
Debora Juarez, Blackfeet, is serving her second term on the Seattle City Council; she is the only enrolled Native American on the City Council of the 20th largest city in the United States.
Chris Stearns, Navajo, is a new member of the City Council in Auburn, a city of 70,180 located south of Seattle; a portion of the city is within the Muckleshoot Indian Reservation.
Ellen Kalama Clark, Native Hawaiian, is an elected Spokane County Superior Court judge.
Leonard Forsman, chairman of the Suquamish Tribe and president of the Affiliated Tribes of Northwest Indians, is vice chairman of the U.S. Advisory Council on Historic Preservation.
Richard Walker, Mexican/Yaqui, writes for Indian Country Today from Anacortes, Washington.