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The Senate Judiciary Committee advanced Riverside Superior Judge Sunshine Sykes March 10, 12-10, in her potentially historic nomination as the first Native American district judge in the California Central District Court.

“When I first started as a judicial officer in Riverside eight years ago, I had a caseload of over 900 cases in my unlimited civil department, and that, as you know, is a wealth of cases,” Sykes said at her Feb. 1 nomination hearing. “I started out straight, handling jury trials one after the other, and I continued that until I was recently chosen to be on a complex civil litigation department. In that capacity over a period of two years I was able to reduce my caseload from 900 cases to about 500 cases. So I know about hard work.”

Sykes will now be voted on by the full Senate.

Sykes’ background

In written answers to Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas), Sykes said she prioritizes dignity and respect.

“My judicial philosophy is to treat all litigants with dignity and respect, to keep an open mind, to listen attentively, to research and do the work necessary to prepare, and to issue a clear, concise, and understandable decision consistent with the applicable law,” Sykes wrote.

If approved, Sykes will be the first Native American federal judge in California, the first federal judge from the Navajo nation, and the fifth Native American federal judge in the United States, according to the White House announcement.

Sykes began serving as a Riverside Superior Court judge in 2013, presides over the civil litigation department, and is the presiding judge of the appellate division.

Previously, Sykes was a Riverside County deputy county counsel from 2005 to 2013, and a contract attorney for the Southwest Justice Center’s Juvenile Defense Panel from 2003 to 2005. 

She graduated from Stanford Law School in 2001, and from Stanford University in 1997.

“The seed that brought me here existed long ago. It was held by my ancestors and nurtured by my great-grandmother when she raised her family while tending sheep on the Navajo reservation. It grew in my grandmother as she endured life in Indian boarding schools. It sprouted in my mother when as a little girl I saw her strong even when she herself thought she had none. And it flourished in me,” Sykes said in her opening statements of her nomination hearing.

Magistrate Judge Kenly Kato

The committee deadlocked on furthering Central District Magistrate Judge Kenly Kato to the same position.

Due to the tie, the Senate can vote by majority to remove Kato’s nomination from the judiciary committee, and consider her nomination without the committee’s input, according to the Congressional Research Service. That method of judicial approval has only succeeded five times since 1916, according to the CRS.

Kato and racial discrimination

The opposition against Kato stemmed from Sen. Chuck Grassley’s (R-Iowa) line of questioning about racial discrimination in court cases.

“I am disappointed she did not answer whether she thought racial discrimination was wrong,” Grassley said. “She also could not answer whether a case she dismissed on procedural grounds rather than reaching the merits, in other words, why she did that.”

During her nomination hearing, Cruz asked Kato if racial discrimination was wrong. Kato said the Constitution prohibits racial discrimination, and when Cruz asked again, Kato said as a judge she does not deal with issues of morality, and that since racial discrimination was frequently litigated in the courts she could not discuss her views on it due to Canon 3 of the Code of Conduct.

Cruz mentioned a specific case coming before the Supreme Court involving racial discrimination in Harvard admissions, which Kato declined to comment on due to Canon 3. Cruz and Grassley both pressed Kato on her views regarding neoliberalism written in a Harvard book review she co-wrote 25 years ago, which Kato declined to discuss claiming she did not remember the full context of the review.

In a written response, Kato said it would be inappropriate for her to discuss her views on the book now, since she is bound by the Code of Conduct.

Kato realized the importance of litigation when she heard the stories of her Japanese family’s internment during World War II.

“Hearing those stories of my family’s firsthand experiences impressed upon me from a very young age the critical importance of securing constitutional rights for everyone. It is what led me to the law. It is what led me to be a public defender, so I can play some role in ensuring that the Sixth Amendment was upheld, and now as a United States magistrate judge, having taken an oath to uphold the Constitution, it is truly an honor to work each and every day to ensure that everyone’s constitutional rights are protected,” Kato said. 

The committee also advanced Los Angeles Superior Judge Sherilyn Garnett’s nomination to the Central District.

Read Sykes’ written responses to questions here.

Read Kato’s written responses to questions here.

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