Navajo Nation Supreme Court concludes hearing officer within his authority to rule on election case

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has concluded that Chief Hearing Officer Richie Nez was within his authority to preside over a case involving presidential candidate Russell Begaye.

In an opinion issued Thursday, the justices wrote that because the tribal president appointed Nez as the chief hearing officer for the Office of Hearings and Appeals, he is within his authority to determine cases presented before him.

Nez's qualification came into question in an appeal filed by former presidential candidate Myron McLaughlin, who alleged that Nez did not meet the requirements under tribal law to rule on the case.

The appeal, which was filed Wednesday, cited a section of Navajo law that states that hearing officers "shall be" attorneys licensed to practice law in Navajo courts and state-licensed attorneys in Arizona, New Mexico or Utah.

Personnel from each of the state bar associations said Nez was not listed in their active membership lists on Thursday. The Navajo Nation Bar Association confirmed Nez's membership on Friday.

Deswood Tome, special adviser to Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly, dismissed reports on Friday that Nez had resigned as a result of the appeal.

"He did not resign," Tome said, adding that Nez is qualified for the position but is not state licensed.

The appeal also asks the high court to review Nez's Nov. 24 decision that determined Begaye is qualified to run for the presidency despite the allegation that he was not qualified because he did not maintain an "unswerving loyalty" to the tribe through his service as a shareholder representative for the Navajo Nation Oil and Gas Co.

The opinion established a time frame for McLaughlin and Begaye to file additional court documents.

The justices also wrote that because the matter is an election case, the law requires a review no later than 15 days from the date the appeal was filed, and if the court determines a hearing is warranted, both McLaughlin and Begaye would be notified.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 and Follow her @nsmithdt on Twitter.