(Correction: This article was updated at 10:10 a.m. Wednesday, Dec. 20, to reflect that former federal prosecutor John D. Russell was also confirmed to a federal judgeship Dec. 19 by a voice vote. It was also updated to include comments from U.S. Sen. James Lankford and Gov. Kevin Stitt.)
The U.S. Senate voted 52-14 to confirm Sara Hill this afternoon as a federal district judge for the Northern District of Oklahoma. A former attorney general of the Cherokee Nation, Hill becomes the first Indigenous woman to serve on the federal bench in Oklahoma. In October, President Joe Biden nominated Hill and former federal prosecutor John D. Russell to a pair of open judicial positions in the Northern District of Oklahoma.
Although senators held a recorded vote on Hill’s confirmation Tuesday, Russell was confirmed by a voice vote in the Senate alongside other appointees. It was Hill’s appointment that drew more attention owing to opposition from Oklahoma Gov. Kevin Stitt, who questioned Hill’s experience level and suggested she might have political bias in favor of sovereign tribal nations.
Cherokee Nation Principal Chief Chuck Hoskin Jr. released a statement soon after Hill’s confirmation, saying it marked “a great and historic day for the country.”
“Sara Hill earned bipartisan support, and support from an array of thoughtful individuals and organizations across the country, for the same reason Cherokee leaders placed so much confidence in her: She is a brilliant attorney with a commitment to public service, fairness, justice and the rule of law,” Hoskin said. “I am especially appreciative of the support offered by Oklahoma Sens. James Lankford and Markwayne Mullin, who worked with the Biden administration to confirm Sara Hill.”
Hoskin also thanked Oklahoma Attorney General Gentner Drummond for supporting Hill’s nomination, while also referencing the political dynamics of her confirmation.
“I am also gratified that the Senate was largely unmoved by the small collection of special interest opponents of Sara Hill’s nomination, inexplicably led by Gov. Kevin Stitt and the Oklahoma cockfighting industry,” Hoskin said.
Lankford issued his own statement after the confirmations Tuesday.
“With hundreds of cases in the backlog, I am grateful the Senate moved quickly to fill the vacancies on the federal court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. The two new judges for the Northern District were an agreed-upon pair with the White House,” Lankford said. “I believe Sara Hill and John Russell will protect and defend the Constitution of the United States and administer justice fairly and impartially. After months of background checks, vetting, testimony, interviews and much more, Sara, John and their families have finally made it through our rigorous confirmation process. I congratulate them both on earning this position of high honor and responsibility in our nation.”
Sara Hill confirmed despite Stitt opposition
While Hill received support from Lankford, Mullin and various Native American groups, Stitt emerged as an opponent of her nomination. In a statement released after Hill’s confirmation, Stitt criticized the new federal judge.
“I’m disappointed that some Republicans in the Senate would confirm a Biden nominee that doesn’t hold Oklahoma values,” Stitt said. “She is an anti-oil and gas, anti-agriculture, pro-abortion activist and now she can practice that activism from the bench. I’m concerned what this means for the future of Oklahoma and our mission to be a top 10 state.”
Hill served the Cherokee Nation between 2004 and 2023. She worked as a deputy attorney general between 2004 and 2015 before being appointed as the Cherokee Nation’s first secretary of natural resources by then-Principal Chief Bill John Baker in October 2015. She held that position until being appointed attorney general by Hoskin Jr. in 2019.
One year later, the U.S. Supreme Court decided McGirt v. Oklahoma, which functionally affirmed the majority of eastern Oklahoma as a series of Indian Country reservations. While the McGirt case dealt with the Muscogee Nation Reservation, it led to the Cherokee Nation’s reservation being affirmed by the Oklahoma Court of Criminal Appeals in Hogner v. State.
Hill’s representation of the Cherokee Nation during those cases drew the ire of Stitt, himself a Cherokee Nation citizen and a top critic of the complex ramifications of the McGirt decision.
“We already know where she stands on important questions facing our state as to who has jurisdiction to write speeding tickets and whether members of her tribe should be exempt from paying taxes that fund schools and roads,” Stitt said in a statement after Hill was nominated.
From Cherokee Nation attorney general to federal judge
As Cherokee Nation attorney general, Hill oversaw the expansion of the tribe’s court system after the Hogner decision recognized the Cherokee Nation Reservation’s continued existence. Within Indian Country reservations, only tribes and the federal government have jurisdiction to prosecute Indians accused of offenses under the federal Major Crimes Act.
In 2022, The Cherokee Phoenix reported that the Cherokee Nation went from prosecuting about 300 cases a year to more than 3,700 cases in the year following the Hogner decision.
In August 2023, Hill resigned her position as attorney general to enter private practice, a move which lasted about two months before she was nominated to the federal bench.
Drummond breaks with Stitt, supports Hill
Stitt was not alone in his criticism of Hill’s nomination, with Oklahoma State Sen. Nathan Dahm, also the chairman of the Oklahoma Republican Party, urging people to call their U.S. senators and oppose the nomination.
Oklahoma Secretary of Agriculture Blayne Arthur and the Oklahoma Second Amendment Association, a gun rights group, also opposed Hill’s nomination, according to a story by Reese Gorman of the Washington Examiner. During her confirmation hearing, Sen. Mike Lee (R-Utah) and Thom Tillis (R-N.C.) both questioned her on issues of tribal sovereignty. In response, Hill emphasized her commitment to hearing cases “fairly and impartially” and applying the law to the facts of a situation.
Drummond, Oklahoma’s attorney general who has challenged some of Stitt’s positions and rhetoric on state-tribal jurisdiction questions, sent a letter to senators voicing his support of Hill’s nomination to the federal bench.
“Her commitment to the rule of law has ensured numerous victims in northeastern Oklahoma were not abandoned or forgotten following jurisdictional uncertainty over the course of the last three years,” wrote Drummond.
John D. Russell confirmed by voice vote
Biden’s nomination of John D. Russell, however, drew less attention. Russell also received the support of Lankford and Mullin during the nomination process.
An attorney with GableGotwals since 2015, Russell previously served as a federal prosecutor for the Northern District of Oklahoma and trial attorney for the tax division of the U.S. Department of Justice.
He graduated from Oklahoma State University and the University of Oklahoma College of Law in 1988.
Russell’s appointment fills a vacancy left when Judge John E. Dowdell took senior status in 2021.
In a Senate hearing on Nov. 15, most of the questioning focused on Hill, but Russell answered questions from Sens. Dick Durbin (D-Illinois) and Alex Padilla (D-California). Durbin asked Russell about a class action lawsuit he represented against a breast cancer drug manufacturer, while Padilla asked Russell about diversity in staffing of the federal judiciary.
“Do you agree that diversity is good for the courtroom and for the judicial system,” Padilla inquired. “What would you do to work towards more diverse staff?”
Russell responded that he would value diversity if confirmed to the bench.
“If I’m fortunate enough to be confirmed I would cast as wide of a net as possible to try and get clerks from as many places as possible. From diverse backgrounds as well as racial diversity and all types of diversity I think are important so that it is never an echo chamber,” Russell said.
Hill and Russell’s confirmations are among the most notable Oklahoma judicial appointments during the Biden administration. Despite entering the fourth year of his term as president, Biden has not nominated anyone to serve as U.S. attorney in any of Oklahoma’s three federal court districts.