Published on: Friday, May 20, 2022

The Senate voted Wednesday to confirm Sunshine Suzanne Sykes to a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, making her the state’s first-ever Native American federal judge and just the fifth Indigenous woman in U.S. history to serve on a federal court (article available here).

Sykes, 48, has been a California Superior Court judge since 2013. She previously served as deputy county counsel for Riverside County, and was a contract attorney for the Defense Panel at the Southwest Justice Center. From 2001 to 2003, Sykes also worked as a staff attorney for California Indian Legal Services.

Sykes joins four other Native American judges actively serving on the federal bench out of nearly 900 authorized federal judgeships. Those four are all women, and they are U.S. District Judges Lauren King, Diane Humetewa, Ada Brown, Lydia Kay Griggsby.

Sykes’ confirmation continues President Joe Biden’s efforts to make the nation’s federal courts more diverse, both in terms of demographics like race and gender but also in terms of professional backgrounds.

For some context on the significance of Sykes’ confirmation, only seven Native Americans have ever served as federal judges in the 230-year history of the U.S. federal courts. That’s out of more than 4,200 people who have served as Article III judges (lifetime judges on U.S. district courts, appeals courts and the Supreme Court). Besides the five previously mentioned judges, including Sykes, the other two were U.S. District Judges Michael Burrage and Frank Howell Seay.

There has never been an Indigenous judge on a U.S. appeals court.

Of the 40 lifetime federal judges that President Biden confirmed in his first year in office, 32 are women, 27 are people of color, 21 are women of color and 27 have professionally diverse backgrounds. Fifteen are former public defenders.