Navajo Nation Supreme Court will hold hearing to address the tribal presidency

Noel Lyn Smith The Daily Times
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court will hold a hearing today to address a question from the Navajo Nation Department of Justice about the office of the president.

The justices will respond to a petition five assistant attorneys general filed on Wednesday that asks the high court to clarify and determine who will legally hold the presidency after Tuesday's inauguration.

The hearing is set for 10 a.m. today at the Navajo Division of Transportation in Tsé Bonito.

The assistant attorneys general filed the petition because Navajo Nation Attorney General Harrison Tsosie and Deputy Attorney General Dana Bobroff have recused themselves from the matter.

In a memorandum attached to the petition, Tsosie and Bobroff stated their recusals were "deemed necessary to avoid any perception of bias" since they are appointed by the president and their terms of service coincide with the president's.

The Justice Department's petition to the high court came after Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly and Pro Tem Speaker LoRenzo Bates asked the department similar questions. Both leaders wanted to know what tribal law requires if there is no elected president to take the oath of office on Tuesday.

In a Dec. 15 memorandum to Shelly and Bates, Assistant Attorneys General Rodgerick T. Begay and Paul Spruhan wrote that Shelly would continue as president until a new president is sworn into office.

On Dec. 22, Chief Legislative Counsel Levon B. Henry wrote that Navajo law mandates the speaker or the pro tem speaker fills the vacancy in the president's office until the position is filled by an election.

"The court should resolve the matter and advise the president and the council what Navajo law states should happen under these unique circumstances where there will not be a president sworn in on Jan. 13, 2015," the petition states.

Today's hearing is the latest development in a series of events surrounding the election of a president.

Joe Shirley Jr. and Chris Deschene were the top two finishers in the tribe's primary election on Aug. 26.

Former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne filed separate election grievances on Sept. 5 against Deschene that accused him of lying on candidacy paperwork about his ability to fluently speak the Navajo language, a requirement for the office.

The tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals ultimately disqualified Deschene as a presidential candidate by a default judgment.

The Office of Hearings and Appeals ordered the Navajo Election Administration to follow tribal law and replace Deschene's name on the ballot with council Delegate Russell Begaye, who finished third in the primary election.

But days before the Nov. 4 general election, the Supreme Court ordered the election office to exclude the presidential race from the ballot and to hold a special election within 60 days, with Shirley and Begaye as the presidential candidates.

Former presidential candidate Myron McLaughlin filed an election grievance on Oct. 31 against Begaye, but the delegate's candidacy was upheld by both the Office of Hearings and Appeals and the Supreme Court.

In response to a motion filed by the election office, the high court ordered the presidential special election to be scheduled no later than Jan. 31, but the election office has yet to set a date.

On Dec. 30, the council passed a bill to have a special primary and general election for the tribal presidency. The bill remains under consideration by Shelly. Today is the last day for Shelly to sign the bill into law or veto it.

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.