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Wednesday, January 22, 2020  Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883
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News >  WA Government

Washington’s highest court gets chief justice from Spokane, first Native American member

UPDATED: Mon., Jan. 6, 2020

New Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Stephens speaks from the bench after she was sworn in, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, in Olympia. Stephens replaced former Justice Mary Fairhurst as Chief Justice, who retired in January as she battles cancer. (Ted S. Warren / AP)
New Washington Supreme Court Chief Justice Debra Stephens speaks from the bench after she was sworn in, Monday, Jan. 6, 2020, in Olympia. Stephens replaced former Justice Mary Fairhurst as Chief Justice, who retired in January as she battles cancer. (Ted S. Warren / AP)

OLYMPIA – With ceremonial drumming and singing plus a bit of poetry, the Washington Supreme Court swore in a “daughter of Spokane” as its new chief justice and its first Native American justice ever.

Justice Debra Stephens became its 57th chief justice and the first person from Spokane to hold the post since 2001. A former Appeals Court judge and adjunct professor of law at Gonzaga University, she called it “the greatest privilege I can imagine” although she said she was having trouble wrapping her head around what it means, just as she did after being named to the court in 2008.

With the addition of Raquel Montoya-Lewis, sworn in at the same ceremony, Washington has its most diverse court in history, Stephens said: “This is a historic day.”

Stephens was elected chief justice by other members of the court after former Chief Justice Mary Fairhurst announced she was resigning to concentrate her energy on fighting cancer. Gov. Jay Inslee last month named Montoya-Lewis, a Whatcom County Superior Court judge, to fill the open seat on the court.

Inslee said Monday was a day when “a daughter of Spokane ascends to chief justice,” and the court gets Lewis-Montoya, a “judicial superstar” who is a good listener, decisive, caring and compassionate.

A member of the Pueblo Iselta tribe of New Mexico, Montoya-Lewis is the first Native American to serve on Washington’s highest court, and only the second to serve on any state supreme court in the nation.

To mark the occasion, Fawn Sharp, president of the Quinault Indian Nation, gave the opening invocation after the Washington State Patrol Honor Guard marched in with the U.S. and state flags for the presentation of colors. The Port Gamble S’Klallam Singers sang and beat drums for a gathering song at the beginning the ceremony and an honor song at the conclusion. Tribal members draped Stephens and Montoya-Lewis with colorful ceremonial blankets after they were sworn in.

To Native people, the drum beats represent heartbeats that sustain them, Montoya-Lewis said, and the drums and songs signify the historic nature of the event. In keeping with her native traditions, she said she wanted to remember where she came from, a Pueblo father and a Jewish mother. She hadn’t even met a lawyer, let alone a judge, when she applied to law school but former Washington Supreme Court Justice Charles Smith became her mentor when she was a law student.

She joins a court that had been together since 2014 when Mary Yu was appointed to an opening, and was the longest-serving group of nine in state history, Stephens said. Justices serve six year terms and a third of the court is up for election every two years.

Although outsiders sometimes describe the role of chief justice as the first among equals, Stephens told the other members of the court she sees her job as a facilitator who makes their jobs easier and supports their work.

She said she’d rely on lessons from her father, who taught her to “jump in with both feet and give more than you take,” and her late mother who taught her to trust in the goodness of the universe and live in hope. She closed her remarks with a poem from William Stafford, “A Ritual to Read to Each Other,” which calls for people to work to understand each other.

“For it is important that awake people be awake, or a breaking line may discourage them back to sleep; the signals we give – yes, no or maybe – should be clear: the darkness around us is deep.”

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