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7 Indigenous women to sit on Arizona bench

7 Indigenous women to sit on Arizona bench

The record high number includes five who will be serving Justice of the Peace terms #NativeVote22

  • From left to right, Justice Deborah Begay, state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, state Sen. Victoria Steele and Justice Susie Nelson. These four, along with Sara Mae Williams (not pictured), will all be serving Justice of the Peace terms after the midterms.
    Photo courtesy Victoria SteeleFrom left to right, Justice Deborah Begay, state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, state Sen. Victoria Steele and Justice Susie Nelson. These four, along with Sara Mae Williams (not pictured), will all be serving Justice of the Peace terms after the midterms.

In a historic first, seven Native American women will be sitting on the bench in Arizona after Election Day.

Five will be serving terms at the justice court level, joining U.S. District Judge Diane Humetewa, Hopi, and recently appointed Superior Court Judge Charlene Jackson, Diné, on the bench.

A Justice of the Peace oversees misdemeanor offenses, domestic violence cases, civil lawsuits where the amount in dispute is under $10,000, landlord and tenant controversies and a range of other civil and criminal traffic offenses – like DUI’s.

Each county has justice courts and the number of justices in a county depends on the population size.

Deborah Begay, Diné, was elected to the Moon Valley Precinct in 2021 as the first ever Native American Justice of the Peace in Maricopa County. Her current term ends on Jan. 1, 2025.

Susie Nelson, Diné, is the Justice of the Peace at the Kayenta Justice Court. She is up for re-election this year and is running unopposed. She was first appointed to the bench in 2007 by the Navajo County Board of Supervisors after the former judge retired.

Three other justices up for election this year are a shoo-in since they’re also running unopposed.

Sara Mae Williams, Tohono O’odham, is running for election in Pima County Justice of the Peace Precinct 3. It’s her first time running for Justice of the Peace but she was previously elected to serve on the Baboquivari Unified School District Governing Board Member from 2011 to 2020.

Arizona state Sen. Victoria Steele, Senea-Mingo, and state Rep. Jennifer Jermaine, White Earth Ojibwe, both have their legislature terms ending next year and are on the midterm ballots this election running for Justice of the Peace in their respective counties.

“I'm so excited to be the next Justice of the Peace for the San Marcos Justice Court in the city of Chandler, under the Maricopa County Court System,” Jermaine said.

Some call the transition from the state Legislature to the justice court a retirement plan for politicians but Steele and Jermaine both say the decision was a lot deeper than that.

“For me, it was more about continuing my work on domestic violence and continuing the work on where victims intersect with the court experience. Making sure that we are building pretrial victim services into every step,” Jermaine said.

Jermaine says being apart of Arizona’s Missing and Murdered Indigenous People’s Study Committee means she’ll bring valuable perspective to justice court cases with domestic violence victims.

“I think that will help me be a good Justice of the Peace because I can see all the different sides of a scenario and see how the different jurisdictions intersect to be able to navigate and help the victims through,” Jermaine said.

Steele is looking forward to finally making a living wage.

“I am so thrilled that I'm gonna, finally, not be living in poverty,” Steele said.

State lawmakers are paid $24,000 a year for what is supposed to be a part-time job but Steele says the reality of finding another job while serving in the state Legislature is difficult.

“You are expected to get another job someplace else. But here's the reality because I've tried to do that, nobody wants to hire me because they know that I'm gonna be out of town for more than six months out of the year. Nobody wants to hire me because they know that I am very political,” Steele said.

She says this is not just about making more money as Justice of the Peace. On average justices in Arizona make roughly $115,000 a year.

“It's about time I get paid what I’m worth but that's really, truly, not what it's about. If I really was all about the money, I would be running for corporation commissioner. I would be going into the U.S. Senate, or I would be not running for office but getting a job in the private sector – which I would be more than highly qualified for.” Steele said. “I could make a lot more money.”

But she’s most interested in coming to the aid of people who are the most vulnerable in society.

She said becoming a Justice of the Peace is a natural progression for her career path because it’s in line with her previous experience as a licensed counselor.

Steele used to work directly with victims of domestic violence, sexual abuse, substance abuse and other forms of trauma. Two Native women are already sitting on the bench in Arizona on the superior court and appellate court level.

On Oct. 14, Arizona Gov. Doug Ducey appointed Judge Charlene Jackson, Diné, to the Maricopa County Superior Court. Prior to her appointment she practiced law at her firm, the Jackson Law Firm.

Much of her work has focused on tribal policy issues, including gaming, human resources, employment law, contract review, policy development and business reorganization. She’s already served in several capacities as judge and has worked for a number of different tribes.

Humetewa made history in 2014 when she was appointed to the United States District Court for the District of Arizona.

This report was first published by ICT.

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