Walking into Riverside County’s historic courthouse on her first day, newly appointed California Superior Court Judge Sunshine Sykes got some jarring news: Her seat was being challenged. • “It was very unusual,” says Judge Raquel Marquez, a colleague at the court. “I called Sunshine as soon as I heard. Everyone in the courthouse knew about the challenge and I wanted her to know too.” • It was a dramatic start to a new career on the bench. “My challenger was saying that I was appointed only because I was Native and that the casino tribes were behind my appointment. He dismissed the work I had done for the community and my legal career. So, there was racism in the challenge,” says Sykes, JD ’01 (BA ’97). “Typically, a judge is challenged on her record. But I didn’t have a record yet.”
But Sykes took it in stride. She had dealt with worse.
The daughter of a Navajo mother, Sykes was born on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Tuba City, Arizona, spending most of her early years there and in the border town of Gallup, New Mexico. Her parents divorced when she was young and her mother sometimes struggled to make ends meet while raising her. Though it wasn’t poverty that stood out to Sykes as much as the sting of prejudice.
“Gallup was a kind of hard town with lots of alcoholism and racism. We were pretty poor and didn’t have a car, so we walked a lot and I remember people calling us names and being mean because we were Native,” she recalls.
Life with her mother contrasted starkly with visits to her father— the difference sowing the seeds for her career in law.
“I would go visit my father, who’s non-Native, in big cities—L.A., Chicago, New York—and I started to see how, depending on who you were and how you looked, people treated you differently. When I was with him, it was with respect and dignity,” she says. “I was very young, maybe in third grade, but could see that juxtaposition, the unfairness, and I wanted to do something about it.”
Appointed by Governor Jerry Brown in 2013 to the California Superior Court, Sykes is the first Native American ever to sit on the Riverside court—bringing experience and diversity to the bench. And she’s fulfilling that early ambition to do something about fairness and justice in the world, one case at a time.
Sykes’ career in law began when she was an undergraduate at Stanford. She interned at California Indian Legal Services in Oakland, California, and then began her legal studies at Stanford Law—where she thrived in a less competitive, more cooperative, learning environment. “It wasn’t cutthroat—everyone was helping everyone else to succeed,” she said. “And when I had my daughter during my third year, so many students stepped up to help me and take notes for me—the administration helped too. I don’t know how I would have done it without them.”
During law school, Skykes studied Indian Law and Juvenile Law and took the East Palo Alto Law Clinic, where she worked with domestic violence victims. She also continued her work at California Indian Legal Services and interned with DNA People’s Legal Services in Tuba City, Arizona. After law school, she built her expertise in the field as a staff attorney and Equal Justice Works fellow at the California Indian Legal Services and then as a contract attorney on the Juvenile Defense Panel. She and her family made Riverside their home, and she served as a deputy county counsel at Riverside County Office of County Counsel from 2005 to 2013.
While she had her sights on the bench, she first applied to a Riverside County commissioner position.
“I saw her application and thought she’d be right for the bench,” recalls Judge Marquez. “I had never met Sunshine but I could see that she was well qualified. So, I reached out to her and asked if we could meet to discuss the judicial position that was coming up.”
The two met and immediately bonded. “It was like finding a long lost sister. We related very well,” says Marquez, who encouraged Sykes to apply for the judicial position.
Sykes also had encouragement from her favorite law professor, Michael Wald.
“I talked through the selection process with her, what factors were generally considered by the governor and his advisors, and I wrote a recommendation on her behalf because I knew her qualifications so well,” says Wald, Jackson Eli Reynolds Professor of Law, Emeritus.
Sykes submitted her application on July 4—and was appointed on December 13.
“She has a strong interest in juvenile court and child welfare. And that’s a set of interests that’s not common in people entering the judiciary and it’s very important to enhance,” says Wald.
Wald also emphasizes the importance of having someone on the bench who understands the Indian Child Welfare Act and issues as they relate to Native American children in the state. “She has been providing leadership on these issues throughout the state,” he says.
And these are issues that Sykes is intimately familiar with. The courthouse where she works sits just a few miles from the Sherman Indian School, which was established in the early 1900s when the federal government forcibly removed Native children from their homes and moved them into boarding schools.
“Both of my grandparents were taken from the Navajo Reservation and put into the Sherman school. All the children were forced to cut their hair and wear non-traditional clothes, and they weren’t allowed to speak their traditional languages or practice their traditional ceremonies,” says Sykes.
Sykes’ oldest daughter, she has four, did a history project about the school and found photographs of her great-grandparents during their time at Sherman.
“There’s one photo of my grandmother in a home economics class dressed in a maid’s outfit. And there’s one of my grandfather next to a car and there’s a caption: ‘Indians Learn Mechanics.’ There were no ‘How to Become a Lawyer’ or ‘Becoming a Doctor’ classes for them,” she says.
Sykes felt the weight of that history— and her obligation to all the citizens of Riverside County, including the sizable Native American population—when she was sworn in as a judge.
“Riverside has one of the largest Native communities in the state, with something like 17 tribes, and not one Native judge, so the bench was not reflecting the community,” she says. “When I was a lawyer working with juveniles, I saw a lot of instances across the state where judges didn’t really understand the Indian Child Welfare Act and the reasons behind its passing in Congress in the 1970s. They didn’t really understand Native culture.”
Now, Sykes often visits local schools to speak to students about the law and encourage them to consider a legal career.
“Kids ask if I’m really a judge, and they say I don’t look like a real judge. But a lot of people, not just kids, have an expectation of what a judge should be, what she should look like,” she says. “It’s gratifying to be able to hold this position and to look like so many of the people who come into my court—Native and also a woman, because we don’t have enough women on the bench either.”
After her appointment in 2013, and the election in 2014, which she won handily, Sykes has settled into her position on the bench as a civil trial judge. With hindsight, she believes she actually benefited from the challenge.
“Starting out on a new career, managing a busy calendar, managing trials, and balancing that with family, was tough,” she says. “Having to campaign for my seat added a lot of work. But it forced me to get out and meet people in the community—people I might not have met otherwise.”
The challenge also helped her to forge stronger ties with the Native community.
“I hadn’t met with the tribes before my appointment, but I did during the campaign. And they rallied behind me during the challenge,” she says.
Support for Sykes extended beyond the Native community too. She won her seat with almost 70 percent of the vote.
“I know from my experience with the appointment process that she has enormous respect among the judges and lawyers in the county so her joining the bench was seen as very good for the county by the people in the legal system there,” says Wald.
Sykes has also had the opportunity to continue her work directly on tribal law. In October 2015 she was appointed by the California Supreme Court chief justice to the Tribal Court-State Court Forum, a Judicial Council group that’s under one of the many groups of the Judicial Council, established to bring together tribal judges and state court judges to address issues that affect tribal communities. Part of its work involves an effort to develop cross-jurisdictional courts, something that, she says, is currently being done more in Northern California with the Yurok tribe and the Hoopa tribe.
At Superior Court, Sykes enjoys the variety of subjects in civil law, where she might hear cases on medical liability and on auto accidents in one week.
“There are so many areas within civil that touch upon everyday life. So, it’s never boring,” Sykes says. “And I like trials—having the chance to interact with the public, reading well-written briefs, and having a good back and forth banter with attorneys. I really enjoy it.”
For Marquez, having another woman of color at the court is a benefit to the community—and also to the bench.
Appointed just two years before Sykes, she too was a first—the first Latina judge in Riverside County, which also has a large Latino population.
“The first time I saw a Latina woman judge was the day I put my robes on and looked in the mirror. I’m sure it was the same for Sunshine,” says Marquez. “It’s wonderful to finally, for the first time, have someone like me as a peer.”
For Sykes, it’s also deeply gratifying.
“When I told my grandparents that I had been appointed to the Riverside court, they cried,” Sykes recalls.
She pauses for a moment.
“I’m not here just because of my own ambitions. I have to look back at the struggles that my family went through, and that my ancestors went through, to help me get here,” she says. “I don’t ever forget that.”