Earlier this month, Judge Sara Hill started her new job. She is a new federal district court judge. United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. 

I’m on the way to the American Bar Association’s Midyear meeting where, amoung other events, I’ll attend the ABA’s Spirit of Excellence Awards where Judge Hill will be honored for her life long commitment to excellence and her commitment to diversifying the legal profession and being a strong role model. She was chosen for this award prior to her time on the bench, based on her efforts and successes in mentoring and lifting up others. I’ll be one of the enthusiastic cheerleaders at this event as she is deservedly seen and honored on the national stage.

In January, her JD alma mater, the University of Tulsa College of Law, hosted a lovely reception. Dean Oren Griffin asked to make a few remarks since TU is my JD alma mater, too. My task was to provide the political and historical context for why her appointment was so significant.

This blog is about primarily about wellness, but this post still fits that bill. Sometimes an important part of wellness is the giant exhale that occurs when something so long overdue in our society, or communities, finally happens. Knowing more about our history, the good, bad and ugly, is also part of society’s wellness journey and storytelling is good therapy. So here goes.

Sara becomes the first Cherokee Nation citizen to ever serve as an Article III judge in the United States. And the first Native woman to serve as a federal judge in Oklahoma. 

She also becomes the first Native woman to serve as a federal judge in Indian Territory. Her chambers will be in the Muscogee town of Tvlse. Tulsey Town, I.T. Present day downtown Tulsa, Oklahoma. Walking distance to the point on the map where the Cherokee Nation, Muscogee (Creek) Nation and Osage Nation reservations converge.

Indian Territory was established in 1834 to make way for the forced relocation of the Cherokee, Choctaw, Muskogee (Creek), Chickasaw and Seminole Nations. Each of these Nations negotiated new political and territorial boundaries within I.T. as a condition of their removal. Each Nation was both the fee title property owner and a soveriegn government exercising power within. Finally, each Nation also secured a promise that they would never become a part of any future State. Indian Territory was not a single Indian reservation. It was a federal territory full of several Indian Nations and their distinct reservations and national borders.

And then came Oklahoma. It’s far from an accident that Oklahoma is now home to 39 federally recognized Indigenous Nations. Sara’s federal appointment is significant, both to the history of the Cherokee Nation and United States history. She was confirmed by a vote of 52 yeas, 14 nays, and 34 not voting. 

Judge Hill is well-qualified. Level-headed. Has substantial legal experience. Has been a public servant her entire career, culminating in her service as Attorney General at Cherokee Nation. She is humble. Wicked smart. Funny. She’s a great mom. Enjoys the support of a devoted immediate and extended family. Models all the best of small-town rural family values and is a classic American success story. And so much more. Did I mention that a Cherokee girl from Tahlequah now has a lifetime appointment as a federal judge?

The Cherokee Nation connection and the University of Tulsa connection is a piece of history that deserves telling, as Judge Hill takes her seat. 

The Cherokee Nation made it’s debut in federal court case law in the 1830s, with two foundational Indian law cases. Cherokee Nation v. Georgia (1831) and Worcester v. Georgia in (1832). 

In the first case, Cherokee Nation was not allowed to defend it’s homeland from encroachment from Georgia for lack of standing – the US Supreme Court concluding that Cherokee Nation was neither a state or a foreign country for purposes of original jurisdiction before the Supreme Court. 

In the second case, a white Presbyterian minister turned out to be the right Plaintiff to advance Cherokee Nation’s claims against Georgia. The Reverend Worcester (like Rooster but with a W). He was a criminal defendant prosecuted by Georgia for failing to abide by Georgia’s laws. His crimes? Failing to submit an oath of loyalty to Georgia and failing to obtain the equivalent of a Georgia passport as he traveled in and out of Cherokee Nation.

Rev. Worcester paid a hefty price for being an ally to the Cherokee people, but his case remains good law today (with a few modifications). His case means this: absent some very clear federal law to the contrary, states are presumed to lack jurisdiction inside a tribe’s territorial boundaries. Think of the Worcester as McGirt, episode one.  

During the Cherokee removal process, Worcester relocated his family to Indian Territory, and continued his work with Cherokee people. He’s buried near Cherokee Nation’s current government seat. 

Rev. Worcester’s granddaughter was Miss Alice Robertson – who in addition to being the first woman to represent Oklahoma in Congress, ran a boarding school for Indian girls in my hometown of Muskogee. That school eventually became Kendall College. Kendall College eventually moved to Tulsa and became the University of Tulsa.

When Alice Robertson was 12 years old, the Cherokee Nation entered into it’s final formal treaty with the United States. In one little known provision of that treaty, Article 13 – the Cherokee Nation expressly agreed that the United States could establish federal courts inside Indian Territory, provided that intra-tribal matters would remain in Cherokee Nation’s own courts. I know of no other situation where the United States acquired tribal consent to locate a federal court. Why would they do that? Remember that the tribes in I.T. were both the owner of the underlying property estate AND the sovereign exercising jurisdiction within.

Cherokee people tend to think think 100 to 200 years ahead with every move, especially our elected leaders. There is no way, that Cherokee Nation would have agreed to hav federal courts placed inside of Indian Territory, without the expectation that Cherokee Nation and it’s citizens would have access to those courts as needed AND play important roles within those federal courts. 

Judge Hill is the embodiment of those expectations.  

And as the first Cherokee citizen federal judge takes her seat – it’s equally fitting that she received her legal education at the University of Tulsa, Miss Alice’s school. Another fingerprint from institutions tied to the Worcester family.

Sara. Judge Hill. Congratulations! Wishing you a long and healthy and happy second half of your career.  

One Response

  1. Thank you Dean Leeds for this wonderful piece on Judge Hill, and your warm remarks at the TU Law celebration. It was a pleasure meeting you! Katherine Vance