Permanent justice center needed, awaiting funding

By Chief Justice Herb Yazzie
August 23, 2012

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t appears the Legislative Branch through the Resources and Development Committee is embarking on important discussions with the Navajo people regarding the needs of the nation. We at the Judicial Branch are asking that the leaders and the public remain mindful of the needs of their communities and our nation regarding facilities for our justice system.

Through history, courthouses have been a symbol of justice, independence and self-governance. They are a reflection of the community and its social and economic sustainability. The Navajo Nation's court system itself is a source of pride for our people and the nation. However, at this time, our court facilities are in a state of crisis.

The Navajo Nation took control of our judicial system in 1959 at a time when other governments were attempting to assert their authority over our people. Though our court system is highly regarded, many of our courts have operated out of substandard facilities for years. While the construction of the Crownpoint and Tuba City justice centers are nearing completion utilizing Recovery Act funding and a loan taken by the Navajo Nation, other judicial facilities remain temporary, non-existent, or condemned.

Firstly, it is well-known that the Supreme Court has never had a permanent location. We have conducted hearings at whatever locations are available to us. Our staff members have been split between two locations since January 2008. It is time for the Navajo people to have a Supreme Court building to call their own.

There is now an architectural design for a Supreme Court complex that incorporates our Dine' teachings. For example, the hearing room will be shaped as a hogan and not as a Western-style courtroom. Peacemaking sessions will also have a similar design. This design is instrumental in applying Dine' Fundamental Law.

The estimate to construct the Supreme Court complex, which would also include the Administrative Offices of the Courts and the Peacemaking Program, is about $15 million. The complex is construction-ready. However, funding remains the challenge. Drawings have been submitted to the proper entities and we are finalizing permit reviews. When funding is obtained, we can quickly proceed to bidding.

Also of urgent importance is the need to relocate the Window Rock District Court. District court staff must be relocated due to safety and health issues with the current building. The district court provides direct services to the public with a staff of approximately 20 personnel. The Window Rock District Court had a caseload of 8,662 cases in Fiscal Year 2011.

The court has had to reduce operation hours and move operations to the building at the junction of Highway 264 and Route 12 once temperatures reach unsafe levels in the current facility. The change in operational hours has been in effect since June 22 due to a broken cooling system and based on a recommendation from the Navajo Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

The problems with the Window Rock District Court building are not new. In July 2010, the Indian Health Service Office of Environmental Health detailed further problems with the facility, including asbestos. The roof of the building often leaks causing interior damage and growth of mold.

The report from I.H.S. also stated that the current courthouse/police station has concrete beams and columns that are severely deteriorated. For the safety of the general public and employees, the building must also be brought up to National Fire Protection Association and handicap accessibility standards. These are all issues that affect not only staff, but members of the public who must utilize our courts. The entire operation for the Window Rock District Court must find a suitable location to continue to offer services to the public.

Additionally, in May of this year, the Dzi Yijiin Judicial District was established as the eleventh judicial district. It is based in Pinon and serves Black Mesa, Blue Gap-Tachee, Forest Lake, Hardrock, Low Mountain, Pinon and Whippoorwill chapters. The new district has no facilities, and now operates temporarily out of a site at the Pinon Community School.

In the next fiscal year, the Judicial Branch will have a district court judge, three court clerks and an office technician stationed at this new judicial district. The chapter and community continue to seek funding for a permanent justice center to include the court, detention and law enforcement. The design for this facility is nearly completed and construction funding for a permanent facility is necessary for this new judicial district.

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