A Seat at the Table

Guest: Raquel Montoya-Lewis, Associate Justice, Washington Supreme Court

Along her journey from the classroom to the courthouse, Justice Raquel Montoya-Lewis '95 experienced the unique challenges and pressures people of color face in a legal field where individuals like herself remain vastly underrepresented.

Today, the UW Law alumna brings those experiences to her new leadership role on the Washington Supreme Court after becoming the first Native American to serve on the state’s highest bench.

“It was surreal in that moment and has continued to be fairly surreal,” Montoya-Lewis says of her appointment. “Every day there is something that makes me reflect that this is a historical appointment that is meaningful to other people. So, it has been a pretty remarkable ride and one that I feel really honored to be able to take on.”

With the appointment, Montoya-Lewis is just the second Native American to sit on any supreme court in the United States. It is another defining milestone in a career full of them.

The daughter of a Native American father and an Australian-Jewish mother, Montoya-Lewis found she was often the only person of color in the room as she moved around the world.

As she developed what she wanted to accomplish in life, she says her family always pressed her to make every decision with integrity in mind, something she holds true to this day.

The values her family instilled in her informed the path she wanted to take as a professional. After earning a degree in social work at the UW, Montoya-Lewis was drawn to the law and, specifically, how it impacts individuals and underrepresented communities.

“I became really interested in how the law functions as this underpinning of our society and codifies the ways we interact with each other in ways that we don't even really think about,” Montoya-Lewis says.

Despite an often-frustrating experience in law school, Montoya-Lewis parlayed her legal education into a clerkship in New Mexico with a lawyer who encouraged her to practice before becoming a professor.

Over the next two decades, the justice would go on to serve as chief judge for Washington’s Nooksack, Skagit and Lummi tribes, as a professor at Western Washington University and as a judge on the Whatcom County Superior Court.

In January 2020, the sounds of tribal drums rang out in the Temple of Justice in Olympia as part of Montoya-Lewis’ Supreme Court swearing-in ceremony — a personal touch she made sure to add to mark the occasion.

“I don't know that there's ever been a drum group or those sounds in that building,” Montoya-Lewis says. “But there are now, and I wanted to make a public statement that we're here — and that I belong there."

On this new podcast episode of DISCOVERY presented by UW Law, Justice Montoya-Lewis shares her remarkable journey to her seat on Washington’s highest bench, and she discusses the issues — and opportunities — legal institutions face in becoming more diverse, equitable and inclusive.

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