Senate confirms Oklahoma’s first Native American female federal judge, overcoming GOP opposition

Thune votes against Sara Hill, Rounds did not vote

By: - December 20, 2023 2:39 pm
Sara Hill, nominee for federal judge in Oklahoma, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 15, 2023. (U.S. House webcast screenshot)

Sara Hill, nominee for federal judge in Oklahoma, testifies before the Senate Judiciary Committee on Nov. 15, 2023. (U.S. House webcast screenshot)

WASHINGTON — The U.S. Senate on Tuesday confirmed the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge for the state of Oklahoma, despite some Republicans’ protest of her work as the top prosecutor for the Cherokee Nation.

Sara Hill, the Nation’s former attorney general, was confirmed as a U.S. District judge for the Northern District of Oklahoma in a 52-14 vote, joining just a handful of Native Americans appointed to lifetime judicial positions in U.S. history.

Hill’s confirmation faced opposition from some of Oklahoma’s highest-ranking GOP officials, including Gov. Kevin Stitt, but she retained support from the state’s two Republican U.S. senators, James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin, during her nomination process.

Immediately following the vote, Lankford said he has “no doubt (Hill’s) an American first.”

“When she served for the Cherokee Nation, obviously she had a perspective. She was the voice for the Cherokee Nation. She’s gonna speak for the Cherokee Nation,” Lankford said.

“She’s an Oklahoman, she’s an American, and she understands full well that your job on the federal bench is to not represent one group of Oklahomans — it’s all Oklahomans of the United States. So she’s been very clear of her commitment to the United States Constitution and knowing that’s her first responsibility on the bench.”

GOP senators who joined Lankford in voting for Hill’s nomination included Susan Collins of Maine, Chuck Grassley of Iowa and Lisa Murkowski of Alaska. South Dakota Republican John Thune voted against Hill’s confirmation.

Numerous Republicans missed the vote, including Oklahoma’s Mullin and South Dakota’s Mike Rounds.

Multiple senators were absent Monday and Tuesday after Majority Leader Chuck Schumer cut short the holiday recess in an effort to strike a deal on Ukraine aid and immigration.

Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia was the lone Democrat to vote against Hill.

Cherokee Nation’s top prosecutor

Hill served as the Cherokee Nation’s attorney general from 2019 to 2023 during the overhaul of the tribe’s criminal prosecution system set in motion by the U.S. Supreme Court ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma. The decision removed Oklahoma’s jurisdiction over cases involving Native Americans on five tribal lands, which stretch over roughly 40% of the state.

As a result the Cherokee Nation’s annual caseload skyrocketed into the thousands from the previous flow of roughly 100 or fewer, Hill said in August.

Republican officials questioned Hill’s advocacy on behalf of the Cherokee Nation’s sovereignty and asked whether she would be able to judge fairly from the U.S. bench.

Following President Joe Biden’s October nomination of Hill, Stitt said in a statement he had “serious concerns.”

“… Furthermore, is the best choice an attorney general of a tribal government who has spent a great deal of time and resources actively suing the State of Oklahoma in an effort to overturn 116 years of Statehood and working to strip the state of our authority to enforce laws,” wrote Stitt, a member of the Cherokee Nation.

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When asked by reporters Tuesday about Stitt’s opposition to Hill, Lankford said “we agree on a lot of things. We disagree on this one. I think she’s qualified to be able to do it. It was part of the package of two people actually moving together.”

John David Russell is the second nominee for U.S. District Judge for Oklahoma’s Northern District. Russell and Hill were approved together by the Senate Judiciary Committee Dec. 7. The full Senate has not yet voted on Russell.

“(Stitt) really likes one, he doesn’t like the other. OK, he’s a Republican governor, I totally get that. If I had a Republican president, we may have two Republican nominees (for the bench). We don’t, but they’re both very, very qualified to be able to do the task,” Lankford said Tuesday.

During Hill’s nomination hearing in November, GOP Sen. Mike Lee of Utah questioned Hill’s criticism of the Supreme Court’s 2022 decision in Oklahoma v. Castro-Huerta, which narrowed the scope of McGirt by allowing Oklahoma to prosecute crimes committed by non-Native Americans against Native Americans on tribal land.

“Your apparent desire to remove the state’s authority to prosecute non-Indian offenders would, in my view, only weaken law enforcement’s ability to remove violent offenders from the streets,” Lee said.

Hill responded to Lee in November: “On behalf of my client, I was critical of the decision in Castro-Huerta. I certainly believe and understand that I will be required to follow the law if I’m so fortunate as to be confirmed.”

Lee did not vote Tuesday.

Three Native Americans have been appointed and approved by the Senate under President Joe Biden’s administration. Hill is Biden’s fourth Native American judicial appointment, according to the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, which represents roughly 230 U.S. civil rights advocacy organizations and strongly supports Hill’s nomination.

Hill is the eighth Native American in U.S. history appointed to a lifetime judge position, according to both the Leadership Conference and the Native American Rights Fund.

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Ashley Murray
Ashley Murray

Ashley Murray covers the nation’s capital as a senior reporter for States Newsroom. Her coverage areas include domestic policy and appropriations.

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