Group seeks removal of judge from Navajo Water Rights Settlement case
Motion claims Judge James Wechsler once worked for tribe
FARMINGTON — A group of San Juan River water users is claiming a state judge did not divulge a relationship with the Navajo Nation when he approved the Navajo Water Rights Settlement in 2013.
The group filed an emergency motion to the New Mexico Court of Appeals on Monday, alleging retired Judge James Wechsler violated the state's Code of Judicial Conduct and Rules of Professional Conduct because he did not disclose he previously represented the Navajo Nation.
They are seeking Wechsler's dismissal from the case and want to have his rulings vacated. They also are asking that the case be heard by a new judge.
Wechsler approved the waters rights settlement that awarded the tribe more than 600,000 acre-feet of water in Aztec District Court in August 2013, according to The Daily Times archives.
The group's motion states that Wechsler served as an attorney in the 1970s for the Crownpoint office of DNA People's Legal Services and lived with his family in the community. The judge did not disclose that information to the parties in the water rights case despite the state code requiring a judge to volunteer such details, according to court documents.
"Because Judge Wechsler worked as an attorney and advocate for the Navajo Nation and the Navajo people, he has a continuing duty of loyalty to his former clients," court documents state.
Mike Sullivan, chairman for the San Juan Agricultural Water Users Association, said there should have been full disclosure about Wechsler's connection to the tribe.
"Nobody knew he had prior work with the tribe," Sullivan said.
The acting executive director for DNA did not respond to a request for comment, but a 2016 tax form posted on the website for DNA shows a 501 (c)(3) tax-exempt status and a description as a "nonprofit law firm."
Stanley Pollack, one of the attorneys handling the tribe's water rights in the Navajo Nation Department of Justice, said a response to the motion will be filed.
"Wechsler has never been employed by the Navajo Nation. He has never represented the Navajo Nation, and the Navajo Nation has never been his client," Pollack said.
He added the motion is "conflating" Wechsler's work on tribal land with employment by the tribe. He said DNA has sued the tribe for cases involving issues such as jail conditions and landfill closures.
Wechsler retired from the state Court of Appeals at the end of July 2017, according to Administrative Office of the Courts spokesman Barry Massey.
Massey added that, as a retired judge, Wechsler continues to preside over several water rights adjudications in the state, including those in the San Juan Basin.
"He had been handling those cases previously and has been designated a judge pro tempore to continue to preside over them," Massey wrote in an email.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at email@example.com.