Inslee names first Native American to Washington State Supreme Court
Gov. Jay Inslee helped usher in a historic day for the Washington State Supreme Court when he appointed Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis as the first Native American justice Wednesday in Olympia.
Montoya-Lewis has more than 20 years of judicial experience, including five on the Whatcom County Superior Court. She spent years working with tribal communities in Washington and elsewhere, and is uniquely familiar with the challenges that tribal and rural communities face. She also worked on issues to protect children from exploitation, and received the Children’s Advocacy Center Community Leadership Award in 2018.
“Because Judge Montoya-Lewis is Native American, many will focus on the historic nature of this appointment,” Inslee said. “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.”
The governor said Montoya-Lewis embodies intelligence, courage, compassion, temperament and fairness — qualities that every judicial officer should possess.
“Whether we spoke to the lawyers who practiced before her, or the judges who reviewed her work — we’ve heard one thing over and over: that she’s exceptional,” Inslee said. “Some even used the word ‘superstar’. Everyone kept telling us she is the best trial judge they’ve ever had.”
Attorney General Bob Ferguson attended Wednesday’s announcement at the Temple of Justice.
“I was honored to attend today’s historic announcement,” Ferguson said. “Judge Montoya-Lewis is a respected jurist who will be a tremendous addition to the court. She also brings a unique perspective on issues facing rural and tribal communities, and I know she will serve our state well.”
Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric Richey said he fully supports Montoya-Lewis’ appointment.
“Throughout my career as a prosecutor, I have had the distinct pleasure of being in front of many judges,” Richey said. “While they all have strengths in certain areas, Judge Montoya-Lewis has — without a doubt — set the bar for excellence. I am thrilled Judge Montoya-Lewis is going to be our next Supreme Court Justice.”
Montoya-Lewis said she was honored to join the court and that she looks forward to continuing her lifelong commitment to justice in this new role.
“I have served as a judge for 20 years, in tribal courts and in Superior Court, and I know the struggles and challenges that land people in front of our hardworking judges at every level of our judicial system,” Montoya-Lewis said. “I bring each of the stories I have heard over my career to being a Supreme Court Justice and I hope to honor and serve the people, my colleagues, my ancestors, and my family with the integrity and honor each of them have shown me over these many years.”
Montoya-Lewis takes Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst’s place when she retires from the court in January.
“I’m very excited to have Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis taking my place,” Fairhurst said. “She follows a long line of wonderful justices to serve in Position No. 3, including Chief Justice William H. Williams, Justice William C. Goodloe and Justice Charles Z. Smith. I’m thrilled to welcome our first Native American to serve on this court. I only regret that I won’t be able to work with her.”
The Supreme Court elected Justice Debra L. Stephens from Spokane to serve as the incoming chief justice.
During Inslee’s seven years in office, he has addressed the longstanding historical inequities of the state judiciary composition. He appointed women to about half of those judicial vacancies, and judges of color to about a quarter of the vacancies to build a judiciary more reflective of the people that it serves. The governor’s last State Supreme Court appointment was Justice Mary Yu in 2014.
Inslee praised Montoya-Lewis, saying she will bring new stories, new voices, and the kind of fresh perspective the state needs to represent Washington communities across the state.
“Judge Montoya-Lewis brings intellectual humility, courage of conviction, and a personal commitment to improving access to justice for all of our communities,” Inslee said. “I look forward to her professional mark in our state history and on our state’s highest court.”
Montoya-Lewis is an enrolled member of the Pueblo of Isleta and a descendant of the Pueblo of Laguna Indian tribes, and will be the only Native American Supreme Court judge in Washington. She has served as chief judge for the Nooksack Indian Tribe, Upper Skagit Indian Tribe, and Lummi Nation Tribal Court. She taught for more than 12 years at Western Washington University. She is 51 years old.