WASHINGTON — Politics may be driving Oklahoma's senators to oppose the nomination of a Kiowa tribal member to a federal judgeship in Tulsa, the head of the nation's largest American Indian organization said Tuesday.
Chickasaw Nation Lt. Gov. Jefferson Keel, the president of the National Congress of American Indians, said Arvo Mikkanen, a federal prosecutor in Oklahoma City, is “an outstanding attorney. He's definitely got the background and experience that would prepare him for that (judicial) position.”
President Barack Obama nominated Mikkanen last week to be a federal judge in the Northern District of Oklahoma, based in Tulsa. It was the president's first nomination for a federal judgeship in Oklahoma.
Mikkanen has been an assistant U.S. attorney in the Oklahoma City-based Western District since 1994; a graduate of Dartmouth College and Yale Law School, Mikkanen has served as a judge for several tribes and is president of the Oklahoma Indian Bar Association.
Sens. Tom Coburn, R-Muskogee, and Jim Inhofe, R-Tulsa, raised objections to Mikkanen's nomination last week, saying that — contrary to tradition and courtesy — they had not been consulted by the White House.
Coburn also said Mikkanen was “unacceptable for the position” and that the nomination was “another example of how politics in Washington neglect to take into account what is best for the people of Oklahoma.” Coburn has declined to elaborate on why he thinks Mikkanen is unacceptable.
Keel said in an interview Tuesday, “I'm not sure why Senator Coburn objects, other than it's not their choice.”
He acknowledged there may have been a breach of protocol but said, “They're going to object to anybody that President Obama nominates. That's just Senator Coburn and Senator Inhofe. It's politics.”
Inhofe said Tuesday that he had worked with other members of the congressional delegation to recommend a variety of people to the Obama administration for a wide range of positions. Some have been appointed, he said, while others have been dismissed with no explanation.
“The White House should be responding to suggested nominations that the congressional delegation — elected by the people of Oklahoma — has made, not blindsiding us as they did in the case of Arvo Mikkanen's nomination,” Inhofe said.
Lael Echo-Hawk, a member of the Pawnee Nation of Oklahoma and the president of the National Native American Bar Association, said, “Arvo is absolutely qualified, and we remain supportive of his nomination and confirmation.”
According to Keel and Echo-Hawk's organization, there currently are no enrolled American Indians serving on the federal bench. The National Congress of American Indians and the National Native American Bar Association have worked to promote Indians for judicial appointments.
Keel said it's important to have judges who understand tribal issues, not so they can advocate for Indians, but so they can have some perspective on matters that frequently confront the courts.
He said he has not been asked by the White House to reach out to Inhofe and Coburn and would wait to see how the situation evolves before contacting them.