New Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis
New Washington State Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis (Courtesy of Governor Jay Inslee's office)

What­com Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court Judge Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis will suc­ceed retir­ing Chief Jus­tice Mary Fairhurst on the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court, Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee announced today dur­ing a press con­fer­ence at the Tem­ple of Justice.

New Supreme Court Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis
New Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court Jus­tice Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis (Cour­tesy of Gov­er­nor Jay Inslee’s office)

Mon­toya-Lewis, fifty-one, is the first Native Amer­i­can jus­tice in the his­to­ry of the Court, and only the sec­ond Native State Supreme Court jus­tice in U.S. history.

Mon­toya-Lewis is from the Pueblo of Lagu­na Indi­an and Pueblo of Isle­ta tribes in New Mex­i­co, fond­ly known as the Land of Enchantment.

“Because Judge Mon­toya-Lewis is Native Amer­i­can, many will focus on the his­toric nature of this appoint­ment,” Inslee said in a state­ment.

“And it’s entire­ly appro­pri­ate to do so. But 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.”

This is not the first time Inslee has appoint­ed Mon­toya-Lewis, fifty-one, to an open posi­tion in Wash­ing­ton’s judiciary.

In 2014, two years into his first term as Gov­er­nor of Wash­ing­ton State, Inslee appoint­ed her to the What­com Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court.

Although Mon­toya-Lewis is suc­ceed­ing Fairhurst on the court, she will not be the Court’s next Chief Jus­tice. That is because, unlike at the fed­er­al lev­el, the Chief Jus­tice of the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court is cho­sen from amongst the jus­tices by the jus­tices them­selves. The jus­tices decid­ed last month that Debra L. Stephens will be tak­ing over for Fairhurst as Chief Justice.

It is pos­si­ble that Mon­toya-Lewis could be cho­sen to serve one or more stints as Chief Jus­tice in the future by her col­leagues on the Court.

First, how­ev­er, she must be retained by the vot­ers in her new role.

Vacant Supreme Court posi­tions may be filled by guber­na­to­r­i­al appoint­ment, but vot­ers will ulti­mate­ly decide who rep­re­sents them on the state’s high­est court.

That’s anoth­er dif­fer­ence between the Wash­ing­ton State Supreme Court and SCOTUS. Jus­tices appoint­ed to the U.S. Supreme Court serve for life and nev­er face the vot­ers. In Wash­ing­ton, jus­tices face the vot­ers reg­u­lar­ly. They serve for six year terms and must retire after they turn sev­en­ty-five years of age.

Pri­or to join­ing the What­com Coun­ty Supe­ri­or Court, Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis was the chief judge for the Nook­sack and Upper Skag­it Indi­an Tribes and an asso­ciate pro­fes­sor at West­ern Wash­ing­ton Uni­ver­si­ty in Belling­ham. She earned her under­grad­u­ate degree from Uni­ver­si­ty of New Mex­i­co. She sub­se­quent­ly earned her law degree and mas­ter’s in social work from the Uni­ver­si­ty of Washington.

Help­ing peo­ple rec­og­nize uncon­scious bias has been a big focus for Mon­toya-Lewis, as the Belling­ham Her­ald report­ed in this well-writ­ten pro­file back in Sep­tem­ber:

In the late 1800s, Mon­toya-Lewis’ ances­tor was sent to a Penn­syl­va­nia board­ing school that stripped her of her native identity.

“It’s a sto­ry that we talk about in our fam­i­ly a lot,” Mon­toya-Lewis said, “but it’s not some­thing that’s talked about outside.”

Mon­toya-Lewis shares her family’s sto­ry when she teach­es class­es in uncon­scious or implic­it bias to judges, court employ­ees and oth­ers through­out Wash­ing­ton state, includ­ing the Judi­cial Col­lege that all new judges must attend.

She tells her stu­dents how Tza­shima went as a girl to the Carlisle Indi­an Indus­tri­al School, where trib­al mem­bers were assim­i­lat­ed into white cul­ture and often treat­ed brutally.

The full sto­ry, by Robert Mit­ten­dorf, is tru­ly worth a read if you want to bet­ter under­stand what this appoint­ment means for our state’s courts.

Raquel Mon­toya-Lewis isn’t just a trail­blaz­er. She is an role mod­el for every­one who inter­acts with our judi­cial sys­tem, espe­cial­ly pros­e­cu­tors, attor­neys, and jurors.

She believes in access to jus­tice, she believes in empa­thy and mutu­al respon­si­bil­i­ty, and she believes in rec­og­niz­ing and con­fronting insti­tu­tion­al racism head-on.

I share Gov­er­nor Inslee’s con­fi­dence that she will be a great Jus­tice for the State of Wash­ing­ton. What­com Coun­ty’s loss is the entire state’s gain.

Her new col­leagues cer­tain­ly seem to like her; they were all beam­ing at today’s press con­fer­ence at the Tem­ple of Jus­tice, and retir­ing Chief Jus­tice Mary Fairhurst (who also spoke) offered high praise for the appointment.

Mon­toya-Lewis will take office on Jan­u­ary 6th, 2020, which is also when Debra L. Stephens will take over as the new Chief Jus­tice of the Supreme Court.

Con­grat­u­la­tions Judge Mon­toya-Lewis, soon to be Jus­tice Montoya-Lewis!

About the author

Andrew Villeneuve is the founder and executive director of the Northwest Progressive Institute, as well as the founder of NPI's sibling, the Northwest Progressive Foundation. He has worked to advance progressive causes for over two decades as a strategist, speaker, author, and organizer. Andrew is also a cybersecurity expert, a veteran facilitator, a delegate to the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, and a member of the Climate Reality Leadership Corps.

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