The Senate voted Tuesday to confirm Lauren J. King to a U.S. district court, making her just the fourth Native American judge on the entire federal bench.
King, 39, was confirmed to a lifetime seat on the U.S. District Court for the Western District of Washington. Every Democrat present voted for her. Six Republicans voted for her: Sens. Susan Collins (Maine), Lindsey Graham (S.C.), Chuck Grassley (Iowa), Mitch McConnell (Ky.), Lisa Murkowski (Alaska) and Mike Rounds (S.D.).
The final vote was 55-44.
King, a citizen of the Muscogee (Creek) Nation based in Oklahoma, was most recently an attorney at the Seattle-based law firm Foster Garvey, P.C. She has served as a pro tem appellate judge for the Northwest Intertribal Court System since 2013 and previously taught Federal Indian Law at the Seattle University School of Law.
She joins three other Native American judges actively serving on the federal bench out of nearly 900 authorized federal judgeships. Those three are U.S. District Judges Diane Humetewa, Ada Brown and Lydia Kay Griggsby.
There have only ever been six Native Americans who have been federal judges in the 230-year history of the U.S. courts. That’s out of more than 4,200 people who have served as Article III judges (i.e., lifetime judges on district courts, appeals courts and the Supreme Court). Besides the four previously mentioned judges, including King, 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.
President Joe Biden has made diversity a driving factor in his judicial picks, both in terms of demographics, such as race and gender, but also in terms of professional backgrounds. His court picks to date have included public defenders, civil rights lawyers, voting rights lawyers and historic firsts with Native American and Muslim American picks.
Diversity on the federal bench is “critical” because it brings different perspectives into the courtroom and constricts biases relating to gender and ethnicity that can undermine justice, said Carl Tobias, a University of Richmond law professor and an expert in judicial nominations. It also improves confidence in the courts when the judges on them reflect the people they serve, he said.
It is particularly important to have Native American judges, added Tobias, especially in Indian Country and in the West, where the federal courts substantially affect the lives of so many Native American people and tribes.
“In some of these places, Native Americans are overrepresented as litigants in the federal courts and severely underrepresented as judges of those courts,” he said. “Moreover, Indian Law is an exceedingly complex and highly specialized area of law that many lawyers in practice, even those who work and live in Indian Country, may understand minimally, if at all.”
Sen. Patty Murray (D-Wash.) recommended King to Biden for a judgeship. Her state is home to 29 federally recognized tribes and has never had an Indigenous federal judge until now.
“I believe that this is a perspective that matters, and one that has been missing for far too long,” she told HuffPost. “To have a judge in front of you who has stepped foot on tribal land and understands the process ― this perspective is really important for people to know when they go through the process, that they have someone with expertise.”
Murray, like other senators, recommends people to the White House for judgeships based on potential candidates presented to her by a judicial selection committee in her state. She noted that her commission is the first in the country to explicitly include a representative from a tribal nation, Rion Ramirez, who is the CEO of Port Madison Enterprises, the economic development arm of the Suquamish Tribe. Ramirez is an enrolled member of the Turtle Mountain Chippewa Band of Indians.
“I think he brings a voice into the room, I can only guess, to have this perspective, to make sure people listened when Lauren applied,” said Murray. “She is an outstanding candidate.”