On October 18, 2023, President Biden nominated Sara E. Hill to the United States District Court for the Northern District of Oklahoma. Hill has dedicated her legal career to Indigenous tribes and peoples, serving as the first Secretary of Natural Resources for the Cherokee Nation then as its Attorney General. When confirmed, Hill will be the first Native American woman to serve as a federal judge in Oklahoma.
Sara Hill was born in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1977. She earned her B.A., cum laude, from Northeastern State University in 2000 and her J.D. from the University of Tulsa College of Law in 2003. Hill is a member of the Cherokee Nation and has spent three decades serving her tribe and the state of Oklahoma.
Since graduating from law school, Hill has only represented two clients: the United States and the Cherokee Nation. From 2004-2014, Hill served as a Deputy Attorney General for the Cherokee Nation. Initially, she worked as a prosecutor in the Cherokee District Court and represented the Nation in Indian child welfare proceedings in Oklahoma state courts. In 2009, Hill started specializing in environmental issues. She litigated cases on topics ranging from water disputes to tribal land status to the historic preservation of tribal property.
From 2014-2015, Hill served not only served as Assistant Attorney General of the Cherokee Nation but also as one of the two first-ever Special Assistant United States Attorneys (AUSAs) for the Northern District of Oklahoma. As a Special AUSA, Hill was empowered to prosecute federal criminal cases occurring in Indian country.
In 2015, Hill was appointed to serve as the Cherokee Nation’s first Secretary of Natural Resources. She continued to hone her environmental law expertise in this role, safeguarding tribal land and community members from environmental harm. Among Hill’s key initiatives were installing the Nation’s first solar car charging station and securing federal funding that made the Cherokee Nation the first U.S. tribe with entirely electric public buses. After four years as Secretary of Natural Resources, Hill was appointed by the Principal Chief to serve as the Attorney General of the Cherokee Nation.
During Hill’s tenure as Attorney General, the Supreme Court issued a landmark ruling in McGirt v. Oklahoma, which drastically expanded the tribe’s criminal jurisdiction. Hill was instrumental in growing the Cherokee Nation’s criminal division: hiring new staff, resolving detention issues, and addressing a variety of administrative challenges. The Nation litigated 100 criminal cases a year before McGirt and 3,700 criminal cases the year after—Hill ensured that the Cherokee legal system had the capacity to successfully litigate these cases. Currently, Hill is in private, solo practice at Hill Law PLLC. Her only client is the Cherokee Nation, which she represents as outside counsel.
The following cases are representative of Hill’s legal career:
- Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation v. Sequoyah Fuels Corp., CV-2017-23 (Sequoyah Cnty. Dist. Ct. Dec. 6, 2019 (Payton, J.). In Sequoyah Fuels, Hill worked to secure the safe disposal of radioactive material from a uranium processing site. Sequoyah Fuels claimed that it could not find a disposal company willing to take the waste, and thus could not follow through on its contractual obligation to dispose of the hazardous material off-site. Importantly, the proposed on-site disposal location was close to the convergence of the Illinois and Arkansas rivers, meaning that the radioactive waste could potentially pollute the water supply. The Cherokee Nation, along with the state of Oklahoma, requested a declaratory judgment in state court, seeking to clarify Sequoyah Fuels’ obligations under the disposal contract. The plaintiffs also sought to prevent the company from beginning its on-site disposal plan. The state court judge barred the company from beginning its disposal efforts and required the parties to meet every week to discuss disposal options. After further discussions, and several failed appeals to the Oklahoma Supreme Court by Sequoyah Fuels, the parties settled on an off-site disposal plan. All the radioactive waste at issue has since been removed from the site.
- Cherokee Nation v. Stitt, No. 5:19-CV-01198-D, 475 F. Supp. 3d 1277 (W.D. Okla. Sept. 23, 2020) (DeGuisti, J.). In 2019, Oklahoma Governor Kevin Stitt declared that he would be either ending or renegotiating the state’s gaming compacts with several local tribes. The tribes filed suit, alleging that the gaming compacts automatically renewed at the end of 2019, making termination or renegotiation impossible. Hill represented the Cherokee Nation in this case, working alongside attorneys from the Choctaw and Chickasaw Nations. The district court ruled for the tribes, finding that that the conditions for automatic renewal had been met.
- Cherokee Nation v. Nomura, 2007 OK 40, 160 P.3d 967 (Okla. May 22, 2007). In Nomura, the Cherokee Nation, represented by Hill, sued to stop the interstate adoption of a Cherokee child to non-Indian parents. To conduct an interstate adoption, the Oklahoma Administrator of the Interstate Compact on the Placement of Children (ICPC) must complete a 100A form. The Cherokee Nation sued to stop the administrator from completing this form, arguing that the state did not provide notice of the adoption to the Nation, thereby violating the Oklahoma Indian Child Welfare Act. The district court issued an injunction to bar the administrator from completing the form. On appeal, the Oklahoma Supreme Court found that the ICPC administrator was required to ensure compliance with the state and federal Indian Child Welfare Acts before filing a 100A and approving an adoption. The adoption request form was later withdrawn.
Professional Activities and Accolades
Hill is a member of several professional membership organizations, including the National Congress of American Indians and the Oklahoma Chapter of the Nature Conservancy. She is also a voting, at-large member of the United States Sentencing Commission’s Tribal Issues Advisory Group. Previously, Hill served on the Cherokee Nation Task Force to Protect Women and Families, the Commission for the Protection of Cherokee Nation Sovereignty, the U.S. EPA Regional Tribal Operations Committee, and the U.S. EPA National Tribal Caucus.
Hill’s work has earned her a variety of professional accolades. In 2016, she was awarded the Cherokee National Statesmanship Award. This award celebrates “those who, as public servants, epitomize the servant leader ideal, exemplifying Cherokee values and acting with respect, dignity and graciousness while working for the betterment of Cherokee Nation and its citizens.” In 2018, Hill received Keep Oklahoma Beautiful’s Towering Spirit award, which honors those who “uphold the mission of Keep Oklahoma Beautiful in a unique way while garnering public acclaim and having a far-reaching, positive impact.” When receiving this award, Hill stated; “I believe protecting our national resources is tied directly to protecting our Cherokee language, our culture and our history…I’m proud to be a part of protecting the Cherokee Nation and our state in ways that will have an impact for many generations to come.” In 2021, she received the ACLU of Oklahoma’s Angie Debo Award in recognition of her work on McGirt v. Oklahoma. The Angie Debo award is “for outstanding achievement in the fight for civil rights and civil liberties.” These accolades testify to Hill’s dedication not only to the Cherokee community but to the state of Oklahoma.