Navajo Nation Supreme Court orders presidential election between Shirley and Begaye

Noel Lyn Smith
The Daily Times

FARMINGTON — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has ordered that the Navajo Election Administration must conduct the presidential election between candidates Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye as soon as possible.

The high court stopped short of setting a date for the election, but stated it should take place "without further delay," according to an opinion issued Friday.

In its opinion, the court nullified two resolutions the previous Navajo Nation Council passed, stating both had no legal effect.

The first resolution would have set new dates for a presidential run-off election and general election. It also would have allowed the 17 presidential candidates who ran in the Aug. 26 primary election to return to the ballot, including disqualified candidate Chris Deschene.

The high court found this action went against established election laws, which outline a process to replace a disqualified candidate on the ballot.

"The election laws are organic and they are to be protected with a higher standard once they are enacted," the justices wrote in the 17-page opinion. "If these laws are to be changed, it should be and must be done in consultation with the people."

The second resolution would have pardoned and reinstated the nine members of the Navajo Board of Election Supervisors. The high court unseated the board after it did not schedule a new presidential election.

In Friday's opinion, the high court reaffirmed its decision to remove the election board members and prohibit them from running for office.

The court also ruled that the four election board members who took the oath of office on Jan. 13 were "properly installed," and the election for the six vacancies on the board should take place in conjunction with the presidential election.

On Jan. 10, Navajo Nation President Ben Shelly signed both of the resolutions into law. But their validity was challenged in a motion filed on Jan. 12 by former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne.

In their motion, Tsosie and Whitethorne also asked the Supreme Court to hold 11 delegates from the previous council, as well as Edison Wauneka, executive director of the election administration, in contempt of court.

The justices denied that request on Friday.

The high court also requested Speaker LoRenzo Bates to convene a special session of the council to address funding the presidential election.

Attorney David Jordan, who is representing Tsosie, said his client was "excited" about the ruling.

"He hopes the Navajo Nation moves forward in harmony with whoever the next president will be," Jordan said.

Both Shirley and Begaye welcomed the court's decision.

Alray Nelson, Shirley's campaign spokesman, said Shirley was "pleased" with the decision. In a statement, Shirley called on Bates and the council to hold a special session to immediately fund the election.

"The Navajo people had enough and want to our nation to move forward," Shirley said in the statement.

In a statement released by his campaign, Begaye said the ruling was "fair and just."

"We have been respectful of the process and patiently waiting for a decision," Begaye said. "Now that it has been made, we call upon all Navajo citizens to join us in restoring harmony for our nation."

Delegate Leonard Tsosie, who sponsored both resolutions, released a press release on Friday evening that called the Supreme Court decision "disappointing" and "very troubling."

Tsosie said he sponsored the resolutions to address disenfranchisement among Navajo voters. The court's ruling, he said, undermines the legislative and executive branches.

"It is up to the council and the president to put this matter back in harmony with the support of the Navajo people," he said.

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.