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.
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.
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!