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January 17, 2020

12/11/2019 4:39:00 PM
Inslee appoints first Native American to Washington Supreme Court
Native American jurist lauded locally

By Bill Reynolds

On Swinomish Reservation and elsewhere among Native Americans, the appointment of Raquel Montoya-Lewis by Gov. Jay Inslee to the Washington State Supreme Court last week has received a unanimous two thumbs-up verdict.

Montoya-Lewis, 51, becomes the first Native American jurist to serve on the state’s high court and just the second as a state supreme court justice in the nation.

Her selection was immediately praised by the National Congress of American Indians, the tribal rights organization for which Swinomish Senate chair Brian Cladoosby is a past president.

The NCAI, in its statement supporting the appointment of Montoya-Lewis, alluded to her two decades on the bench, during which time it said she has heard a broad range of cases.

La Conner attorney Pat Paul, of Swinomish, said tribal judge Mark Pouley penned a letter to Gov. Inslee recommending that Montoya-Lewis be named to replace retiring Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst on the Washington State Supreme Court.

Paul, an appellate tribal judge for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde in Oregon, said Montoya-Lewis enjoys strong support within the legal community.

“I know she is respected among her peers,” Paul told the Weekly News, “from members of the bar to members of the bench.”

During her career Montoya-Lewis has established a reputation for being a judicial pragmatist and consistently scores high marks for her demeanor.

Austin Jenkins

Story courtesy of the Northwest News Network. First published Dec 4, 2019 

In a barrier-breaking appointment, Washington Gov. Jay Inslee has selected a Whatcom County judge to serve as the first known Native American justice on the state Supreme Court since its founding in 1889.

Whatcom County Superior Court Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis, 51, who is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta tribe of New Mexico, will replace Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst when she retires in January.

Fairhurst, who is battling colon cancer for the third time, announced in October that she would step down before her term ends. Justice Debra Stephens, who was first appointed to the court in 2008, has been selected as the next chief justice.

Montoya-Lewis will serve out the remainder of Fairhurst’s term and then run for election next November.

Inslee announced Montoya-Lewis’ appointment at a news conference at the Temple of Justice in Olympia Dec. 4.

In a statement, Inslee said it was appropriate to focus on the historic nature of Montoya-Lewis’ appointment as the first Native American justice. But he added: “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.”

Inslee went on to call Montoya-Lewis a “super star” and said she will bring “intellectual humility, courage of conviction, and a personal commitment to improving access to justice for all of our communities.”

In her own statement, Montoya-Lewis said she would bring her 20 years of experience as a judge in tribal and superior courts, and the personal stories of “struggles and challenges” that she’s heard over those two decades, to the Supreme Court. “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.”

Montoya-Lewis will join a court that is majority female, with six women and three men, and includes a Latino justice, Steven Gonzalez, and the first openly gay and Asian American justice, Mary Yu.

Washington is one of 11 states, including Oregon, with majority female Supreme Courts, according to the National Center for State Courts.

Inslee first appointed Montoya-Lewis to the Whatcom County Superior Court in 2014. She was subsequently elected to the position. Previously, Montoya-Lewis served as chief judge for the Nooksack, Skagit and Lummi tribes. She has also served as a tribal appellate judge and taught at Western Washington University.

Prior to that, as a practicing attorney, Montoya-Lewis represented Indian tribes throughout the United States. Her areas of expertise include child welfare and dependency and tribal membership and enrollment, according to her biography.

Montoya-Lewis holds both a law degree and a Master of Social Work from the University of Washington.

In addition to serving as a judge, Montoya-Lewis teaches implicit bias classes to fellow judges and court officers.

Montoya-Lewis was selected from a pool of 11 applicants for the position, which included Pierce County Superior Court Judge Helen Whitener who became the first openly gay, black judge in Washington when she was appointed by Inslee in 2015.

The right-of-center Washington Policy Center had urged Inslee to consider appointing a justice from eastern Washington to provide more regional balance to the court. Five of the applicants for the open position hailed from east of the Cascades, including Judge George Fearing of Richland who serves on the state Court of Appeals.

The last appointment to the high court was Justice Yu in 2014.

Copyright 2019 Northwest News Network.

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