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Diane Humetewa first Native American woman confirmed as federal judge

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US history in the making, for the first time, the Senate voted unanimously on May 14 to confirm Diane Humetewa to become a judge on U.S. District Court for Arizona, making her the first Native American woman federal judge and the third Native American to ever hold such a position.

The final vote was 96-0 in favor of Humetewa, a citizen of the Hopi Tribe who previously worked as a U.S. attorney, for Arizona, under the George W. Bush administration, at the same time appellate court judge for the Hopi Tribe, and as a special counsel and professor at Arizona State University.

She was nominated by President Barack Obama to the position in 2013 after his administration forced her to step down from her U.S. attorney position in 2009.

It is long overdue that Native Americans have been pushing for increased representation on the federal bench, especially in regions of the country where high numbers of tribal-and Indian-focused legal cases.

“Let’s hope Diane’s confirmation is just the beginning of a slew of Native American federal judges,” said Chris Stearns (Navajo), who previously served as a counsel to the House Natural Resources Committee. “There is still a massive lack of representation of Indian judges in the federal courts.”

Upon Humetewa’s confirmation, the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI) issued a statement saying that she is “impeccably qualified” for her new role.”

“NCAI greatly appreciates the efforts of the president and Senate in achieving this historic confirmation,” the organization said. “There are many qualified, talented people like Diane Humetewa in Indian country who are able and willing to serve. We eagerly anticipate many more nominations of Native people to the federal bench and other offices.”

Bert Brandenburg, executive director of the non-profit Justice at Stake organization, said in a statement that the interests of justice are best served when judges reflect the broader society.

Brandenburg said: “With the confirmation of Judge Humetewa, the Senate has taken an important step toward broadening the makeup of the federal courts. Increasing representation of Native Americans on the federal bench is especially important because federal courts have an outsized authority in defining what’s known as federal Indian law. As a result, Native American people and tribal entities appear as parties in federal court proceedings at far higher rates that do non-Native Americans. Given this picture, the current lack of any active federal judges who are Native Americans is absolutely appalling.”

Sen. Jon Tester (D-Montana), chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs also applauded the confirmation.

Tester said in a statement: “Diane Humetewa is an inspiration to Native people, especially Native women across Indian country. This is an important appointment and long overdue. I’m pleased that the Senate came together in a bipartisan way to get this done. As the only Native American in active service on the federal bench. Diane provides much-needed expertise on the complexities of federal law and Indian sovereignty.”

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