Gov. Kathy Hochul announced last month that she would appoint Justice Mark Montour to the New York State Supreme Court Appellate Division’s Fourth Department, which serves Central and Western New York. Montour was the first Native American elected to a state-level position in New York in 2013, and he is the first Native American justice appointed to the state Appellate Division.
“Being the first comes with a lot of responsibility,” Montour said. “It’s my responsibility to inform the public on issues that are affecting the native nations, such as the Indian Child Welfare Act, the various treaty rights that are continued to be violated, and the [abuse at] boarding schools that many people have never heard of.”
The Appellate Division of the NYS Supreme Court is the second-highest level of the court beneath the Court of Appeals. With his appointment to the Appellate Division, Montour will be serving in the court a step up from the State Supreme Court, which is New York’s trial court and the court he previously served in.
Montour graduated with his J.D. from UB in 1983, and went on to work in a law firm, run his own solo practice, serve as Lancaster’s councilman and then its judge. He was elected as a New York State Supreme Court Justice in 2013.
That wasn’t necessarily a path he thought would be open to him.
“I was never an extremely confident person,” Montour said. “That made it hard to be an attorney, because you can’t not speak in public or in court. I’ve made advancements in my confidence and ability to verbalize my arguments, questions or concerns.”
While Montour campaigned for his role as a Supreme Court Justice in 2013, he applied to serve as an Appellate Division judge. Reviewers read his application and spoke to attorneys who served alongside him to assess his temperament and experience. The review committee saw him as “highly qualified,” and Gov. Hochul appointed him to the role last month.
In his new role at the appellate level, Montour will review trial court decisions that have been appealed as one judge on a panel of five — and he’s already been thrown into the thick of it.
“It’s only been three weeks so far, and balance is important. These first three weeks, it’s
been a lot of catching up. I’ve been told by the other associates it may take a year before you really become settled in,” Montour said. “I’ve already addressed [work-life balance] with my family — as far as my wife is concerned, I need to do this as far as catching up but my intent is to obviously, make time for us and for myself.”
Montour hopes to take action on issues that affect indigenous people and educate the state on what Native Americans have been through to ensure that the government makes the right decisions.
“The Indian Child Welfare Act today is being addressed by the Supreme Court next month, and if the court, in my mind, gets it wrong, it could adversely affect any of the rights that native nations have right now with their association with the government,” Montour said. “Next month is Native American History Month, and we have a couple events planned already to hopefully bring out some of the history for those who don’t know much about it.”
Over the years, Montour reflected on his growth as a person, but also his ties to his roots and how they’ve impacted his professional life.
“I’ve grown a lot in that respect, but I think I’m still the same person who grew up in a blue-collar background in Tonawanda with six siblings and went to a small school,” Montour said. “I feel like I’m a humble person, and I respect others’ views, and it’s important to do that as well.”
Ria Gupta is an assistant news/features editor and can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
Ria Gupta is an assistant news/features editor at The Spectrum.