Navajo Nation Supreme Court upholds Russell Begaye's placement on presidential ballot

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court ruled on Tuesday that Russell Begaye should remain a presidential candidate and dismissed an appeal to overturn a lower court's decision.

In a memorandum of decision released on Wednesday, the high court stated it was affirming the Nov. 24 dismissal by the Office of Hearings and Appeals of former presidential candidate Myron McLaughlin's election challenge against Begaye — but on different grounds.

The justices wrote that they were dismissing the Dec. 3 appeal because the Supreme Court lacked jurisdiction, which they explained in their seven-page decision.

They stated that under Navajo law, challenges to candidate applications are filed within 10 days of a candidate's certification during the pre-election phase.

During the post-election phase, grievances that a candidate filed a false sworn statement are allowed within 10 days after the election.

The justices focused on the date when McLaughlin filed his election grievance with the Office of Hearings and Appeals, which was Oct. 31.

McLaughlin alleged Begaye was not qualified to run for the presidential office 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.

It also alleged that Begaye violated tribal law by being part of a lawsuit filed on June 27 in federal district court in Phoenix. In that lawsuit, the company's five shareholder representatives requested that the federal court overturn a decision by the tribe's Supreme Court that reinstated the company's CEO and its five board members.

The high court stated that, rather than filing the election grievance on Oct. 31, McLaughlin should have filed his complaint against Begaye within 10 days of the federal lawsuit filing on June 27.

"The filing of McLaughlin's grievance on October 31, 2014, five months after the filing, was thus untimely. Dismissal was therefore proper but on grounds that the OHA lacked subject matter jurisdiction," the justices wrote.

The justices also had questions about the behavior of the Navajo Nation Department of Justice toward McLaughlin's appeal, especially since the high court ordered the Justice Department to represent the Office of Hearings and Appeals in filing a response but the department refused to do so and without explanation.

Rather, the Justice Department decided to file a pleading on behalf of the tribal government, which the high court found "troubling" because, under normal circumstances, the tribal government would ask for authorization though a motion to intervene if it wished to submit a pleading to an ongoing case.

Another area of concern highlighted by the justices is the Dec. 12 response from the Justice Department that asked the high court to invalidate the "unswerving loyalty" requirement because neither the candidate nor the people know what that means, and the people determine a candidate's words and actions by voting for them.

"The recommendation to simply defer to the ever-changing political will of the people to define our laws at any given moment in time is not only dangerous to our sovereignty, it is not Diné in thought. Our laws should not sway with the time," the justices wrote.

Begaye, who finished third in the Aug. 26 primary election, had his name put on the presidential election ballot after candidate Chris Deschene was disqualified by the Office of Hearings and Appeals in October.

The Supreme Court reaffirmed the lower court decision after Deschene filed an appeal. In a separate case, the high court ordered the Navajo Election Administration to postpone the presidential election and hold a special election for the office within 60 days of the Nov. 4 general election.

Begaye is facing two-time former tribal president Joe Shirley Jr. for the presidency.

Also on Wednesday, the Supreme Court ordered the presidential special election to be held no later than Jan. 31 and "without unnecessary delay."

The high court made its decision after a motion was filed by the election administration to allow more time beyond the Dec. 23 deadline.

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.