First American Indian confirmed as state's U.S. attorney for Arizona
Arizona Daily Star

By Josh Brodesky

Tucson, Arizona | Published:

After waiting nearly a year, Diane Humetewa was confirmed late Thursday by the U.S. Senate as Arizona's next U.S. attorney, the first American Indian to hold such a post.

Humetewa was recommended last January by U.S. Sens. Jon Kyl and John McCain to replace Paul Charlton, one of eight U.S. attorneys nationwide fired in a Justice Department purge.

Despite the recommendation from two prominent and powerful Republican senators, President Bush didn't move forward with her nomination until last month.

Humetewa, a member of the Hopi tribe, has been a senior litigator and a tribal liaison for the U.S. Attorney's Office. She declined to comment about the confirmation before she has taken her oath of office.

In addition to taking over an office marked by the Justice Department purge, she will take the prosecutorial reins in a district that has been defined by immigration prosecutions.

Immigration sentencings accounted for more than half of all federal sentencings in Arizona last year, according to a report by the United States Sentencing Commission. Nationally, immigration sentencings accounted for about a quarter of all federal sentencings.

The Arizona office is also strapped for resources to the point that it has opted not to prosecute a number of marijuana seizures of less than 500 pounds.

In November, Daniel Knauss, a long-time prosecutor who has been serving as acting U.S. attorney, told the Star the office simply didn't have enough prosecutors to handle smaller drug seizures, particularly with pressure from Washington to ramp up immigration prosecutions.

"The funding has not been increased to keep pace with the volume of cases," said Gabriel "Jack" Chin, a professor in the University of Arizona's James E. Rogers College of Law.

He said of Humetewa, "Given the number of people who could be charged with federal crimes in this district, she faces some very challenging decisions about what she devotes her resources to. A lawyer can do hundreds of drug cases or immigration cases in the time that it might take to do one major white-collar financial investigation."

Humetewa began her career as a victim's advocate in the U.S. Attorney's Office. She graduated from Arizona State University's Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law in 1993 and worked for McCain for three years while he chaired the U.S. Senate Committee on Indian Affairs.

She also worked as a prosecutor in the Department of Justice from 1996 to 1998, focusing on major crimes on reservations.

Such experience should help Humetewa with the challenge of handling prosecutions on reservations, Chin said.

Prosecute too many cases, and the U.S. Attorney's Office is seen as oppressive. But if the office doesn't prosecute enough cases it can be viewed as ignoring tribes and not providing enough victims' services.

"To find the right balance of taking the cases seriously but not looking like a colonialist or an oppressor, that's very difficult," Chin said.

It's unclear why it took nearly a year for President Bush to nominate Humetewa after the recommendation from Kyl and McCain.

Efforts to reach Kyl on Friday were unsuccessful, although he released a statement offering his congratulations.

Carl Tobias, a law professor at the University of Richmond, said Bush's delay was particularly strange considering that the recommendation came from McCain and Kyl, but he thought it was probably to create some distance from the Charlton firing.

"It seems to me that really lies at the feet of the White House," Tobias said. "What were they doing, especially when the two senators who are the same party as the president are making the recommendation? That ought to move quickly."

While there is no question the U.S. Attorney's Office is a political one, Chin said he thought the Charlton affair had actually taken some of the politics out of the appointment, allowing prosecutors to do their jobs with less interference.

"I think the problem that Paul had, and the price that he paid for it, and the scandal that resulted, made it easier for the next U.S. attorney to come in," Chin said. "I think we've all been reminded about how important it is to keep partisan politics separate from the power to put people in prison."

● Contact reporter Josh Brodesky at 807-7789 or