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Sara Hill becomes first Indigenous woman to serve on federal bench in Oklahoma


Judge Sara Hill serves on the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. She became the first Native American woman to join this bench when she was confirmed in December. And she begins at a busy time. Cases in the Northern District have increased since the 2020 Supreme Court decision that said much of the eastern part of Oklahoma is within a Native American reservation. That means certain major criminal cases have to be tried in the federal courts, not state courts. And as Elizabeth Caldwell of member station KWGS reports, Judge Hill has her work cut out for her.

ELIZABETH CALDWELL, BYLINE: In a lounge at the University of Tulsa, a group of judges, professors and tribal officials are gathered to celebrate something that has never happened in Oklahoma before. A Cherokee woman is now a judge in the Northern District. Sara Hill joins just a handful of other federal Native judges to ever be appointed.

SARA HILL: I'm really excited about it. There's a lot of work to be done in the Northern District, but, you know, that's what I came to do. I came to work, so I'm excited to get into it.

CALDWELL: Hill was the Cherokee Nation's attorney general in 2020 when the Supreme Court issued the McGirt decision. It made half of the state tribal lands and upended Oklahoma's legal landscape. Hill says she's ready.

HILL: Indian Country is always changing. The definitions, the law is always changing. So to some extent, you're always on a frontier.

CALDWELL: Since the McGirt decision, cases in the Northern District have increased 400%, and they include more violent crimes involving tribal members. Before the McGirt ruling, those went to state courts. Hill's new colleague, federal Judge Gregory Frizzell, says he welcomes her help.


GREGORY FRIZZELL: As the only full-time judge in the Northern District of Oklahoma for the last...


FRIZZELL: ...For the last year and a half, I am excited that she is going to share some of the load of the 500-plus defendants that I have on my personal docket.

CALDWELL: That is a lot for one judge, according to legal scholars. Some have described what's happening as chaos, and things are likely to stay busy in Oklahoma. The McGirt ruling is facing court challenges. Principal Chief of the Cherokee Nation Chuck Hoskin Jr. says a lot of issues will probably be settled by the Supreme Court.

CHUCK HOSKIN JR: I think we're in a really interesting - potentially a time of potential progress, but also depending on the decision it could move us backwards. We've got to be braced for that.

CALDWELL: Hoskin says the appointment of Hill falls on the side of progress.

HOSKIN: There may be some things going on in the country that might trouble you, but I can tell you right now, a Cherokee girl can grow up to be a federal district judge in this country as a Cherokee citizen. That's reason to celebrate.

CALDWELL: Hill, who is in her 40s, has a lifetime appointment.

For NPR News, I'm Elizabeth Caldwell in Tulsa. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Elizabeth Caldwell