Law degree required for Navajo chief justice

Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON – Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye has signed into law a tribal council resolution to require the chief justice to hold a law degree.

Window Rock

The president approved the resolution, which the Navajo Nation Council passed during the fall session last month, on Monday to amend a qualification for the Navajo Nation Supreme Court's top post.

A section of the resolution mentions the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and how it expanded the authority of tribal courts to impose prison sentences up to three years or issue fines up to $15,000 or both penalties.

The act requires the judge presiding over the criminal proceeding to have sufficient legal training and be licensed to practice law in any jurisdiction in the United States.

The resolution states the Supreme Court does not directly preside over criminal proceedings but does hear appeals.

Therefore, it is “necessary” for the justices to be qualified to hear and rule on all types of cases that may come before them, it states.

“President Begaye views the legislation as a step in the right direction toward establishing more judicial control over cases involving non-Native Americans,” a press release from the president’s office states.

“If we are intent on assuming jurisdiction over any non-Indian on our nation, we have to increase the qualification of our judges both at the Supreme Court and district level,” Begaye said in the release.

Judicial branch spokeswoman Karen Francis did not respond to questions regarding the president’s action and whether the new law would impact the current composition of the high court.

Acting Chief Justice Allen Sloan was appointed in July by the council’s Law and Order Committee, which serves as the oversight committee for the branch.

Chief Justice Herb Yazzie retired in May after a decade in the position.

In the branch’s fiscal year 2015 fourth quarter report released on Oct. 15, Sloan stated there were concerns about amending the qualifications for the chief justice.

Sloan wrote the change would result in a court system that would be “heavily influences by Western law rather than on the laws of the Diné that promote and protect our sovereignty.”

At the time, he asked the council to consider that the tribe remain the most culturally and traditionally oriented court system in the U.S., and that the system require a judge to be Diné, speak the Navajo language, and be knowledgeable of Diné culture and traditions.

In other tribal business, Begaye also authorized the purchase of approximately 82 acres of land, located east of Miyamura High School, in Gallup.

The purchase is set for $163,040 plus closing costs and would be paid for by the tribe’s Land Acquisition Trust Fund.

The intent in purchasing the land is to construct housing for students and tribal members, according to the president’s office Facebook page.

“There is potential for economic development on these particular lands we are purchasing,” Begaye said in the posting.

Delegate Edmund Yazzie, who sponsored the legislation, said in a press release from the Office of the Speaker he hoped the area would be used as the location for a new Indian Health Service hospital.

“Our people are in great need of a new hospital in the area, and this legislation moves us a step closer in that direction,” Yazzie said in the release.

The last resolution the president approved on Monday increases the voting membership on the Navajo-Hopi Land Commission from eight members to nine.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-546-4636.