Navajo Supreme Court upholds presidential candidate's eligibility
Joe Shirley Jr. survives challenge by Vincent Yazzie
WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has upheld a quasijudicial body's decision that Joe Shirley Jr. is eligible to run for the tribal presidency.
Former presidential candidate Vincent H. Yazzie challenged Shirley's eligibility in a grievance filed last month with the Office of Hearings and Appeals.
Yazzie alleged Shirley, who served as president from 2003 to 2011, violated Title 2 of the Navajo Nation Code in running for a third term since tribal law mandates an individual be limited to serving two terms.
The OHA dismissed the complaint on Sept. 12 for insufficiency and ruled Shirley was eligible for the Nov. 6 general election. Yazzie appealed the decision to the Supreme Court on Sept. 24.
Chief Justice JoAnn Jayne read today's decision after she and Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley and Associate Justice by Designation William Platero deliberated for a little more than an hour.
Jayne said the court found no abuse of discretion by the OHA for not granting a hearing for Yazzie, and his grievance did not cite or constitute a violation of the Navajo Election Code.
Provisions under the Navajo Election Code are outlined in Title 11 of the tribal code.
"There was no factual sufficiency in the statement. Therefore, the OHA did not abuse its discretion by dismissing rather than setting a hearing," Jayne said.
In an interview after the hearing, Yazzie continued to maintain that tribal law mandates a two-term limit for the presidency.
"We're going to have four more years of Shirley. … I've seen his work, and it's not pretty. He's going to go out there and finish what he didn't finish back then," Yazzie said.
Last week, the OHA dismissed a separate complaint filed by Yazzie against Vice President Jonathan Nez, who will face Shirley in the general election. Yazzie claimed that a 2002 drunk driving conviction was not disclosed by Nez in his filing application, as required by the election code. But the complaint was dismissed because the conviction did not occur within the last five years, as mandated by that code.
When asked if he regrets filing the legal challenges, Yazzie said no.
Shirley gathered with his wife, Vikki Shirley, and members of his campaign outside the court building.
"Of course, I'm very pleased and happy about the decision. They upheld the decision by OHA, and I agree with that. We didn't think it could go any other way," Shirley said in an interview.
During the hearing, Shirley and his attorney, Justin Jones, sat on the left side of the room while Yazzie and his attorney, Bernadine Martin, sat on the right. Among those attending the proceeding were staff members from the OHA, including Chief Hearing Officer Richie Nez and Joe Aguirre, the hearing officer who determined Shirley's eligibility for the presidency.
Martin argued that Yazzie's challenge centered on the provision in Title 2 that states a president shall serve no more than two terms. In the statute, the word "shall" means "mandatory and not negotiable," Martin said.
She added later that a 2010 ruling by the Supreme Court held that the provision for presidential term limits was valid until the Navajo people determine otherwise.
In that same ruling, the Supreme Court held that a presidential candidate could seek a nonconsecutive third term, but Martin did not directly address that issue today.
Jones said Shirley agreed with the decision by the OHA, particularly that the complaint should have been made when the candidate applications were certified by the Navajo Election Administration in May.
The OHA ruled Yazzie filed an untimely grievance despite knowing Shirley served two terms, Jones said, then added previous Supreme Court rulings assert that timely challenges are critical.
"You sat on your right to do so," Jones said.
Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636 or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.