The first native american judge on the California state bench, Judge Sunshine Sykes looks likely to break barriers on the federal bench as well.
Born on the Navajo Nation Reservation in Arizona in 1974, Sykes attended Stanford University, getting a B.A. in 1997. She then received a J.D. from Stanford Law School in 2001.
After law school, Sykes joined California Indian Legal Services and then spent two years at the Southwest Justice Center and the California Department of Social Services. In 2005, Sykes joined the County Counsel’s Office in Riverside County.
In 2013, Governor Jerry Brown of California appointed Sykes to the Riverside County Superior Court. She currently serves on the Court.
History of the Seat
Sykes has been nominated to the U.S. District Court for the Central District of California, to a seat vacated on March 3, 2020 by Judge James Selna. The Trump Administration did not nominate a candidate for this vacancy before the end of the Presidency.
Sykes started her career working for California Indian Legal Services. She then spent two years with the Southwest Justice Center and the California Department of Social Services, where she served as an attorney for juvenile offenders. See County Attorney Appointed to Judicial Seat, City News Service, Dec. 5, 2013. See, e.g., Leland L. v. Superior Ct. of Riverside, 2004 Cal. App. Unpub. LEXIS 2871 (Mar. 30, 2004).
From 2005 to 2013, Sykes worked as Deputy County Counsel in Riverside County, working on writing ordinances, vetting documents, and representing the county in judicial proceedings.
During her time as County Counsel, Sykes saw her name in a discrimination suit, where the plaintiff alleged that his colleague responsible for the discrimination developed a dislike for him because he protested against an adulterous relationship she was engaged in with Sykes’ then-boyfriend. See Rodriguez v. Cal. Rural Legal Assistance, Inc., Case No. ED CV 13-958-JFW, 2014 WL 3900234 (C.D. Cal. June 30, 2014). The suit was ultimately dismissed by U.S. District Judge John Walter, after U.S. Magistrate Judge Sheri Pym found the affidavits involving the extra-marital relationship to be irrelevant. See id.
Since 2013, Sykes has served as a judge on the Riverside County Superior Court. In this role, Sykes presides over trial court matters in criminal, civil, family, and other state law matters. At the time of her appointment, Sykes was the first native american state court judge in California. See County Attorney Appointed to Judicial Seat, City News Service, Dec. 5, 2013.
Among her notable cases from the bench, Sykes presided over a suit against Monster Beverage Corp. by a man who accused the beverage of causing his heart attack. See Mike Curley, Appeals Court Upholds Verdict in Monster Heart Attack Case, Law 360, Mar. 26, 2021. Sykes bifurcated the trial between causation and damages, and the jury unanimously found for Monster, a verdict upheld on appeal. See id. Sykes also presided over a lawsuit brought by the families of three girls allegedly molested at Liberty Elementary School. See School District Settles Suit Arising From Alleged Sexual Abuse of Students, City News Service, Dec. 3, 2018. The suit ended in a $6.2 million settlement.
Sykes has spoken out on the need for greater diversity in the legal profession and, in particular, the prejudice she has faced for being Native American. See, e.g., Diverse Judges Share Paths to Bench, Advise Young Lawyers, U.S. Official News, Feb. 9, 2016. In a 2016 panel with the American Bar Association (moderated by U.S. District Judge J. Michelle Childs), Sykes noted that her re-election appointment had indicated that she was not qualified to be a judge because she was Native American. See id.
As a state judge with nearly a decade of experience and little controversy during her tenure, Sykes should have little trouble retaining the Democratic support she would need for confirmation.