Court hears argument on Shiprock Chapter motion

Noel Lyn Smith

FARMINGTON — The Shiprock District Court will have a hearing at 9 a.m. Wednesday to determine whether Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie can represent the chapter in its petition asking the court to invalidate a Navajo Nation Council resolution approving the proposed Navajo Utah Water Rights Settlement.

Navajo Nation

The court issued a March 11 order requesting that the chapter clarify who are the petitioners in the case and to explain why the petition was filed without the use of a lawyer.

In February, Yazzie filed a petition for declaratory judgment on behalf of the chapter.

The petition, filed against Speaker LoRenzo Bates and the Council, requests that the court invalidate the Jan. 26 tribal council resolution approving the proposed agreement, which would settle the tribe's water claims in the upper Colorado River basin in Utah.

The chapter alleges the council violated tribal code and Diné Fundamental Law by not submitting the resolution to Navajo Nation President Russell Begaye for his consideration and action.

A brief filed March 18 by the Office of Legislative Counsel, which provides legal advice and legislative services to the council, cites tribal code stating that only individuals who are members in good standing with the Navajo Nation Bar Association shall provide legal representation in tribal courts.

The council contends Yazzie is not a member of the bar association and "should not be allowed to represent the Shiprock Chapter members," according to the brief.

It also states that the tribe's Department of Justice had advised Yazzie about possible criminal prosecution for unauthorized practice of law.

Yazzie filed a response on March 21 that addresses the court's concern about his representation of the chapter.

In the response, Yazzie maintains his action was authorized and directed by the chapter membership in a Feb. 7 chapter resolution.

He wrote that the chapter is "further exercising its right" to have its elected leader "speak directly as the representative of its membership without further relaying on representation of third party lawyers."

The chapter expects to proceed with its petition without lawyers, Yazzie wrote.

On March 20, the chapter voted 63-0 to acknowledge the chapter as the petitioner in the case and "affirming non-reliance on lawyers." The resolution was attached to the response Yazzie submitted to the court.

The legislative counsel filed seven motions this month to have the petition dismissed. The court has not weighed in on those motions.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.