OLYMPIA — Gov. Jay Inslee appointed a Whatcom County Superior Court judge Wednesday to the Washington State Supreme Court, the first Native American justice in the institution’s history.
Raquel Montoya-Lewis, 51, is from the Pueblo of Laguna Indian and Pueblo of Isleta tribes in New Mexico. A former professor at Western Washington University, she has also served as chief judge for three Native American tribes in Washington — the Nooksack, Skagit and Lummi tribes.
The appointment to the nine-member court runs through next year. The seat will be on the November 2020 ballot.
In an announcement ceremony Wednesday at the Temple of Justice, Montoya-Lewis called it a “great privilege and responsibility” to join the court.
She spoke of her ancestors’ trials in surviving attempts at cultural eradication and the institutionalized boarding schools that were forced upon Native Americans.
“And I am here because of their resilience, their courage, their intelligence and their deep commitment to what is just,” she said. “For me, justice is not an abstract concept.”
Her role as a court justice, Montoya-Lewis added, is “to find the best possible answer to questions before us and consider … the people whose lives are impacted by the decisions we will make on the Supreme Court.”
The appointment of Montoya-Lewis fills the vacancy created by Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst, who has been getting treatment for cancer. Fairhurst announced in October that she would retire to focus on her health.
At the ceremony, Fairhurst congratulated Montoya-Lewis, saying, “I’m only sad that I will not be able to serve with her, because I know she will be an excellent justice.”
In announcing Montoya-Lewis, Inslee said he knew much of the focus would fall on her ancestry.
But the governor cited her 20 years of judicial experience and said that in his 98 judicial appointments, Montoya-Lewis stood out in terms of quality.
“She is the kind of exceptional judge that Washington deserves on its highest court,” Inslee said, adding later: “And I think she is uniquely familiar with the challenges of smaller communities, rural communities and tribal communities and is a perfect fit for this job.”
Montoya-Lewis — Inslee’s second appointment to the Supreme Court, after Mary Yu in 2014 — won’t be the chief justice. The court last month chose Justice Debra Stephens to fill that role.
Wednesday’s announcement marked Inslee’s second appointment of Montoya-Lewis. The governor in December 2014 chose her to occupy the Whatcom Superior Court position.
Montoya-Lewis has also taught implicit-bias training to judicial employees in the state, which she said Wednesday she will continue to do.
She called that work important to help people recognize that everyone, including her, brings their own biases to decisions that they make.
That 2014 appointment made Montoya-Lewis, the only Native American Superior Court judge in Washington.
Montoya-Lewis holds a law degree and a master’s degree in social work from the University of Washington, as well as a bachelor of the arts from the University of New Mexico.
Both Stephens and Montoya-Lewis will be sworn into their new roles next month.
As the highest court in Washington, the Supreme Court is tasked with upholding the state constitution and interpreting laws approved by the Legislature and enforced by the executive branch.