FARMINGTON — The latest chapter in the legal saga of the Shiprock Home for Women and Children will take place in front of an Ivy League audience.

Oral arguments in the appeal of a Shiprock judge's February decision supporting an injunction against the home will be heard at Yale Law School.

The Navajo Supreme Court will travel in November to New Haven, Conn., where the case will play out in front of an audience of law school students.

The ruling likely will come after the parties return home, said Jim Zion, an Albuquerque-based defense attorney who is handling the defendants' case pro bono.

"The actual decision will be made in Window Rock," Zion said. "I suspect the arguments will be very interesting at Yale. I'm looking forward to it."

The cross-country trip is not unusual for law schools, Zion said. Schools occasionally invite various courts from around the country to visit campus, where students host the legal proceedings.

"Usually it's Indian law students who ask the administration to ask the Navajo court to come," Zion said. "The institution pays for us to go, and we do."

This is Yale's first time to host the Navajo Supreme Court, Yale spokeswoman Kathy Colello said.

"The visit is the result of student interest, particularly a request by our Native American Law Students Association," she said.

Yale approached the Navajo high court and offered to cover travel and lodging for counsel to move the arguments to the prestigious law school.


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In turn, the Navajo Department of Justice helped select one case under litigation that might be of particular interest to students.

The peg in the case the justice department brought against the Shiprock Home for Women and Children is ownership on Indian land.

The justice department last fall filed a motion for a temporary restraining order and an application for preliminary injunction to allow the Navajo Nation to move forward with construction of the home.

The Nation planned to go out to bid for a new contractor, forcing RJN Construction, of Mancos, Colo., off the $6 million project the company worked on for nearly a decade.

The question that went before the court was who was the "true and legal owner" of the property in north Shiprock.

The shelter itself, under the leadership of Executive Director Gloria Champion, claimed ownership through a lease with the Nation. The construction firm and CEO Robert Nelson also claimed temporary ownership under a business contract.

Yet the Navajo Nation contended it was the rightful owner because individuals do not own land on the reservation. As the true owner, the Nation sought authorization to access the construction zone property and rescind business contracts, allowing it to reassign the contract and finish the project.

Shiprock District Court Judge Genevieve Woody, in a Feb. 7 ruling, upheld the injunction, citing loss of state funding if the project did not move forward immediately.

Zion expects the high-profile appeal hearing at Yale to move the case forward. Construction on the home stalled nearly nine years ago, and shelter staff still anxiously await the day they can move into the new facility.

"There are some particular issues that have been raised in this case," Zion said. "What is the difference between tribal business site leases and commercial leases? How is ownership to be applied in signing a long-term business lease? What does ownership mean?"

The answers to these questions would create precedence in future cases on the Navajo Nation.

Yale students who listen to the appeal arguments will benefit by seeing Indian law in action, Zion said.

"The thinking is that it would be great for the public to see what Indian law is about," he said. "At the end of the day, the point is that Navajo judges bend over backward to try to get some recognition and legitimacy. And here's a major law school that thinks it's important enough to come and argue a case in New Haven."

Yale will not foot the bill for the parties named in the case. Champion and Nelson are responsible to pay their own way, if they choose to attend.

The parties involved in the appeal are expected to attend the hearing at 4:30 p.m. Nov. 14, at the Sterling Law Building of Yale Law School.

Alysa Landry:

alandry@daily-times.com