Shiprock Chapter must have lawyer for filing

Noel Lyn Smith
Shiprock Chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie says he was not surprised by a Wednesday court ruling that held that he cannot represent the chapter in a dispute with the tribal council.

SHIPROCK – A Shiprock District Court judge ruled on Wednesday that the Shiprock Chapter must obtain legal counsel if it want to continue its petition asking the court to invalidate a tribal council resolution approving a proposed water rights settlement.

District Court Judge Genevieve Woody also determined that chapter President Duane "Chili" Yazzie cannot represent the chapter, as the petition remains under consideration by the court.

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

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

After hearing arguments from Yazzie and Carolyn West, an attorney with the Office of Legislative Counsel, the judge said Yazzie lacked the qualifications mandated by tribal law and the Navajo Rules of Court to represent the chapter in legal proceedings.

Woody granted the chapter up to 10 days to retain legal counsel. If no counsel is named, the court will dismiss the petition. She said Yazzie can represent himself as an individual in his own court filing, but he cannot represent the chapter.

Navajo Nation Chief Legislative Counsel Levon Henry and Navajo Nation Legislative Council Attorney Carolyn West leave a Wednesday hearing at Shiprock District Court.

Chief Legislative Counsel Levon B. Henry said in an interview after the hearing the decision was fair to both sides.

"She does, as she said, have to protect the integrity of the court," Henry said.

In an interview at the chapter house, Yazzie said he anticipated the ruling. He said he will update chapter members about the hearing, the decision and their options for proceeding before the time limit to obtain a lawyer expires.

"I want to make sure the people understand before they take any type of action," Yazzie said.

During the hearing, West reiterated that tribal law mandates that only individuals who are members in good standing of the Navajo Nation Bar Association shall provide legal representation in tribal courts. She cited sections of the Navajo Nation Code and a Navajo Nation Supreme Court decision that address the use of legal counsel.

West added that individuals who appear as legal counsel are regulated by the Navajo Nation Bar Association, as well as state bar associations, in order to practice in Navajo courts.

Yazzie argued that the chapter government was created by the people to incorporate a sense of community and decision by consensus, and that chapter officials implement decisions reached by community consensus or majority vote.

“To the best of his ability, his words and actions represent the chapter members’ decision. The chapter president is not separate from the chapter membership in that way,” Yazzie said.

He said the Diné have always stood and talked for themselves, without the assistance of a third party.

“We have the inherent right to speak for ourselves. Why would we want some legal mind to try to interpret what is on our minds, what is in our hearts?” Yazzie asked, adding it would be risky for the chapter to hire a lawyer because he or she may not fully comprehend the chapter’s opinion and position.

Wednesday's hearing was held after Woody issued a March 11 order that requested that the chapter clarify Yazzie's representation and sought the names of chapter members who wished to appear on the petition filing.

The council has filed several motions to dismiss the petition. In Woody's order, she wrote the court would consider those motions after addressing the issue of the chapter's legal representation first.

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