History made as Sunshine Suzanne Sykes appointed U.S. Federal Judge in California


Neely Bardwell | Contributor

Judge Sunshine Suzanne Sykes, Navajo, made history May 26 when she was sworn in as a federal district judge for the Central District of California in Riverside, California with her family, friends and colleagues supporting her from beside the stage.

Sykes’ appointment marks the first time a citizen of the Navajo Nation has been appointed to serve as an Article III judge anywhere in the country. Article III judges are appointed for life as jurists on federal district and circuit courts and the Supreme Court.

President Joe Biden nominated Sykes in December 2021. Sykes is Biden’s second Native American judicial nominee, the first being Lauren King (Muscogee Nation) for the federal judge position in Washington.

Sykes is the first Native American to serve as a federal judge in California and the sixth to actively serve as a federal district judge.

Sykes, who hails from Tuba City, Ariz., is a Stanford University graduate, receiving both her undergraduate degree from Stanford and her J.D. degree from Stanford Law School in 2001. She was a staff attorney for California Indian Legal Services until 2003. Then, Sykes worked as a contract attorney for the Juvenile Defense Panel at the Southwest Justice Center. From 2005 to 2013, she served as a Deputy County Counsel in the Office of County Counsel for Riverside County, handling litigation on behalf of government entities and serving as a juvenile dependency trial attorney representing the California Department of Public Social Services on matters concerning abused and neglected children.

Navajo Nation President Buu Nygren was at Sykes’ swearing-in ceremony to support her as he shared a heartfelt speech of congratulations.

“Thank you so much to Judge Sykes, and family, and for making the Navajo Nation so proud,” Nygren said. “(You are the) first person from our great Navajo Nation to represent us in the state of California.”

It’s an honor to be here and be a part of this moment, to be a part of history and to see how you’re going to continue to progress and move along. You are a great role model for the great Navajo Nation.”

In Sykes’s speech, she thanked her daughters, who assisted her in donning her robe after taking her oath. She also thanked her mother.

“To my daughters, you are my greatest creation, you are in my heart, and you will never truly be able to comprehend how much love I have for you,” said Judge Sykes. “My mom — mama, you have been there for my beginning — it is your strength and your love that has guided me throughout my life. I love you.”

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