Confirmation of Diane Humetewa and Hope for a New Era of Diversity in the Federal Courts

May 19, 2014
Guest Post

by Mary Smith, enrolled member of the Cherokee Nation, President of the National Native American Bar Association

On May 14, 2014, history was made with the confirmation of Diane Humetewa (pictured) to be a district court judge in the United States District Court for the District Court of Arizona.  Ms. Humetewa, an enrolled member of the Hopi Tribe, is the first Native American woman in the history of our nation to serve on the federal judiciary, and will be the only American Indian serving as an Article III judge in the federal judiciary. She previously served as the Senate-confirmed U.S. Attorney for the District of Arizona, and earlier in her career, she worked as an attorney on the U.S. Senate Indian Affairs Committee under then Chairman John McCain and as an Appellate Judge on the Hopi Appellate Court. Ms. Humetewa was confirmed unanimously by the U.S. Senate with a final vote of 96-0. 

In addition to being the first Native American women, she is only the third American Indian to serve as a federal district court judge with the first two being men from Oklahoma. Judge Frank Howell Seay was appointed by President Carter in 1979. Billy Michael Burrage, the last American Indian appointed to the federal bench, was confirmed during the Clinton administration. Unfortunately, as of May 2014, there are 874 Article III federal judgeships in the United States—nine on the Supreme Court, 179 on the Courts of Appeals, 677 on the District Courts and nine on the Court of International Trade – and now only one of these judgeships is held by an American Indian or Alaska Native. The Honorable Derrick Watson, serving as a district judge in the United States District Court for the District of Hawaii, is Native Hawaiian and was confirmed on April 18, 2013. In addition, out of the population of federal magistrates in this country, only one – the Honorable Leo Brisbois in Minnesota – is Native American.

While there is much excitement in the Native American legal community about Ms. Humetewa’s confirmation, it is long overdue to have American Indian representation in the U.S. district courts as an Article III judge. This lack of diversity on the federal judiciary is felt profoundly throughout the Native American legal community and throughout Indian Country. By law, many disputes involving Native Americans must be heard in federal court. In fact, an entire title of the federal code – Title 25 – is labeled simply “Indians.” No other group has this distinction. Almost every year, there is at least one case involving federal Indian law that is heard by the U.S. Supreme Court. Aside from the legal reasons, however, the impact of having a Native American—and hopefully, many more than one—on the federal judiciary will be the strong signal to young Native Americans on reservations and urban areas from Maine to Alaska that they too can aspire to serve on the highest courts in America.

There are currently many Native American lawyers who are qualified and seeking nomination to serve in the federal judiciary. Hopefully, Ms. Humetewa’s confirmation will be the first of many to come, including on the federal appellate courts. Ms. Humetewa’s service will bring much-needed expertise on federal Indian law and tribal sovereignty to the federal courts. One of NNABA’s main initiatives is “Increase Natives and Tribal Court Judges in the Judiciary.” I and NNABA will continue to work to promote Native Americans in the federal judiciary because it will serve to foster justice not only for American Indians and Alaska Natives but for all Americans.