Raquel Montoya-Lewis Becomes the First Native American to Hold a Seat on the Washington State Supreme Court squib

Her name is Raquel Montoya-Lewis. by Lester Black
Judge Raquel Montoya-Lewis and Gov. Jay Inslee Wednesday morning. TVW

Gov. Jay Inslee appointed Raquel Montoya-Lewis to the Washington State Supreme Court today, making Judge Montoya-Lewis the first Native American in state history to hold a seat on the state’s highest court.

Inslee said at a Wednesday morning press conference that Montoya-Lewis is a “perfect fit for this job.”

“She embodies all of the qualities that we look for in a judicial officer—Intelligence fairness temperament, courage, and a real desire to help her community and do justice for all,” Inlsee continued.

Montoya-Lewis, who currently serves as a Superior Court judge in Whatcom County, said it was a “great privilege and responsibility” to sit on the state’s highest court.

“For me, justice is not an abstract concept,” Montoya-Lews said. “Justice is a term of action and I believe as judges and justices that we are called to do justice. To find the best possible answers to questions before us and consider how those answers apply to the people whose lives are impacted by the decisions we make at the Supreme Court.”

Montoya-Lewis is replacing Chief Justice Mary E. Fairhurst, who has been on the court since 2003 but is retiring this month to focus on fighting her third bout with cancer. Montoya-Lewis will serve on the court for the remainder of Fairhurst’s term, which ends in 2020. She will then have the option to run for reelection in November of 2020.

Montoya-Lewis, who is from the Pubelo of Isleta and the Pueblo of Laguna Indian tribes, spoke openly about her Native ethnicity during Wednesday’s news conference.

“I was raised to remember that I come from those who survived,” Montoya-Lewis said. “My ancestors on both sides of my family survived genocide, survived institutional boarding schools, survived attempts to eradicate their culture, and yet… we survived and I am here because of their resilience, their courage, their intelligence, and their deep commitment to what is just.”

Inslee made a point of saying that he did not appoint Montoya-Lewis simply because of her background. He said his office heard “rave reviews” from other judges and prosecuting attorneys who worked with her.

“We heard the same thing over and over, [that] she is exceptional,” Inslee said. “She has been described as a superstar.”

Whatcom County Prosecuting Attorney Eric J. Richey, who regularly works in Montoya-Lewis’s courtroom, told The Stranger that Montoya-Lewis is a remarkable judge.

“She’s beyond qualified,” Richey said. “When you look at all of the characteristics of a good judge, she checks every box. She is by far the best judge overall that I have ever been in front of.

Inslee appointed Montoya-Lewis to the Whatcom County Superior Court in 2014 (she was the only Superior Court judge of native descent when she was appointed) and he said that Montoya’s work in that court has been “stunning.”

When asked by a reporter at the press conference whether people would assume she got her Supreme Court seat only because of her Native identity, Montoya-Lewis said she has faced that kind of criticism “since I was in high school.”

“The first day of law school I… had someone come up to me who I had never met before. And she came up to me and said, ‘You are taking my best friend’s seat.’ That was my introduction to law school. I absolutely expect that people will assume that is the primary reason I am here. I think my record says otherwise."

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