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First Native Hawaiian Woman Confirmed as Federal Judge

Originally published by Candice Norwood for The 19th

For the first time, a Native Hawaiian woman will serve a lifetime appointment as a federal judge in the United States. The U.S. Senate voted 53-45 on Thursday to confirm Hawaii state Judge Shanlyn A.S. Park to be a U.S. district judge for the District of Hawaii.

Park’s confirmation marks a historic step forward in representation for Native Hawaiian people and continues the efforts of President Joe Biden and Senate Democrats to expand the number of women in federal judge positions.

“It’s really exciting,” said Morgan Saunders, a staff attorney at the Native American Rights Fund. “She is a well respected member of the community. She’s very well qualified. So we look forward to her really being an excellent public servant for the people of Hawaii for years to come.”

Since December 2021, Park has served as a judge for the Oahu First Circuit, one of Hawaii’s four circuit courts. In her time there she has handled domestic violence cases and felony criminal matters. Prior to the state bench, she worked as a federal public defender in Hawaii, representing low-income clients.

In her ethnicity, gender and work experience, Park reflects a broader effort by the Biden administration over the last three years to create a federal judiciary that is more representative of the American public and the legal profession.

“I think it’s somewhat telling that she will be the first Native Hawaiian woman to ever serve as an Article III federal judge, but before her, there’s only ever been four — all men,” said Lena Zwarensteyn, the senior director of the fair courts program at the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights.

Article III judges make up the federal judiciary and are nominated by the president and confirmed by the U.S. Senate to a lifetime tenure.

“For most of our nation’s history, being considered a ‘fair-minded, neutral judge,’ has meant being White and male and having a very specific type of legal background,” Zwarensteyn said.

On Tuesday, the Senate confirmed the 100th woman nominated by Biden to a lifetime federal judgeship. He is on pace to surpass a record set by President Barack Obama of the most women confirmed to the federal bench. In eight years, Obama appointed 136 women to these prestigious Article III positions. Biden’s 100th confirmation came a couple months shy of his three-year mark as president.

Biden and Senate Democrats have prioritized racial diversity in their nominees as well. A majority of the first 100 women Biden appointed come from historically underrepresented racial groups. Historically in the United States, Native Hawaiian, Native American, Pacific Islander and Asian-American people have been particularly marginalized.

Three Pacific Islander people, five Native American people and 70 Asian-American people have served lifetime judicial appointments in the 234 years since the federal judiciary was established. 

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