Potential first Native American federal judge in Oklahoma advances toward Senate confirmation
WASHINGTON — Former Cherokee Nation Attorney General Sara Hill is one step closer to becoming the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge for the state of Oklahoma, despite objections from top state officials and some U.S. Senate Republicans.
The Democratic-led U.S. Senate Committee on the Judiciary on Thursday favorably approved, 14-7, Hill’s nomination by President Joe Biden for the Northern District of Oklahoma seat.
The vote followed a contentious mid-November hearing in which some Republicans questioned whether Hill could leave behind her advocacy for the tribal nation and deliver justice fairly from the U.S. bench.
On the state level, Hill’s nomination has drawn opposition from some of Oklahoma’s highest-ranking GOP officials, including Gov. Kevin Stitt.
In addition, the Oklahoma secretary of agriculture wrote a letter to the state’s two U.S. senators, James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin, urging them to “thoughtfully consider” their support of Hill.
Both senators are Republicans, and have signed off on her nomination in what is known as the “blue-slip” process in the Senate in which home-state senators give their opinions of a nominee.
Nonetheless, Agriculture Secretary Blayne Arthur urged Lankford and Mullin to change their minds. “I believe that Ms. Hill is extremely competent and well educated, but I have concerns that her previous tenure in tribal government may make it difficult for her to use clear judgement on agriculture related issues that are brought before her,” Arthur wrote on Nov. 15, the same day as Hill’s nomination hearing.
However, Judiciary Committee Chair Dick Durbin on Thursday highlighted the support Hill’s nomination received from law enforcement and current Republican Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond, as well as from Lankford and Mullin.
“Her commitment to the rule of law has ensured that numerous victims in Northeastern Oklahoma were not abandoned or forgotten,” Durbin, an Illinois Democrat, said.
Experience with Cherokee Nation
Hill served as the Cherokee Nation’s attorney general from 2019 until August 2023, during which she oversaw the restructuring of the tribe’s criminal prosecution after the Supreme Court’s McGirt v. Oklahoma decision in October 2019 removed Oklahoma’s authority to prosecute tribal members in a large swath of the state.
Following the decision, the tribe saw its annual caseload increase from roughly 100 or fewer cases to 4,000.
Republicans questioned Hill during her nomination hearing about her allegiance to the Cherokee Nation required by the high court’s ruling as well as her stance on enforcing Oklahoma’s abortion laws on tribal land following the end of Roe v. Wade.
Back in Oklahoma, Hill faced opposition from Stitt, who has called McGirt’s resulting jurisdictional fights between the state and tribes “a fight for the very fabric of our state.”
Sen. John Cornyn of Texas said Thursday he has “concerns about whether she can treat the United States fairly and controversies with the tribes in Oklahoma.”
“I know there’s a long history in the nation and in Oklahoma, with regard to the status of the tribes and the way they’ve been treated. But as (Durbin) pointed out, both the Oklahoma senators have returned their blue slips,” Cornyn said, also highlighting that Hill’s nomination had been paired with fellow U.S. district judge nominee for Oklahoma John David Russell.
Cornyn added: “So I will be voting yes. For both of those nominees, mainly out of deference to the judgment of our colleagues from Oklahoma.”
“I agree with what he said,” responded Sen. Lindsey Graham of South Carolina, who is the committee’s ranking member.
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Lankford told reporters Wednesday that “there’s just a million rumors flying around about (Hill).”
“And we’re answering each one of the questions to say ‘She’s not anti-Dobbs, she’s not anti-Second Amendment,’” Lankford said, referring to the Supreme Court’s Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization decision that struck down the federal right to an abortion.
“We’ve been pretty clear. ‘Hey, we’ve asked questions, and we’ve had sufficient answers on this,’” Lankford said.
Mullin, Oklahoma’s junior U.S. senator, told reporters Wednesday that he did not want to explicitly give his opinion but said “I’m Cherokee, like I said, I’m from Oklahoma. The Cherokee Nation has been very good. We have a good relationship with the Cherokee Nation.”
When asked whether he had witnessed opposition to Hill’s nomination at the state level, he told reporters “There’s a little bit of contention, you know that, between our governor and the tribes. There’s no question about that. It’s no secret.”
Senators on the Judiciary panel who voted against Hill’s nomination included Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee, Tom Cotton of Arkansas, Josh Hawley of Missouri, John Kennedy of Louisiana, Thom Tillis of North Carolina, Ted Cruz of Texas and Mike Lee of Utah.
If confirmed, Hill would be the eighth Native American appointed to a lifetime judge position in U.S. history.
Three have been appointed and approved by the Senate under Biden’s administration. Hill would be 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.
Carmen Forman, Jennifer Shutt and Jacob Fischler contributed to this report.
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