High court orders 24-member council election to proceed

Navajo Nation Supreme Court strikes down council's action placing Shirley on leave, declares limits on fundamental law invalid

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, May 28, 2010

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(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

Navajo Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Herb Yazzie reads the decision Friday, May 28, ordering an election for a 24-member Navajo Nation Council to move forward. The decision also declared invalid the action by the council to place President Joe Shirley Jr. on leave. The court also invalidated the council's action of limiting the use of Diné Fundamental Law.

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court, in its most wide-ranging decisions in its history, on Friday changed the course of Navajo history forever.

In the most anticipated announcement in recent times, the court upheld the special election that reduced the Navajo Nation Council to 24 members, took away the power of the council to put the president on administrative leave and threw out council-approved law that prohibited the courts from using Navajo Fundamental law in making its decisions.


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It was a day of firsts for the court - the first time it has announced its ruling outdoors (at Veterans Memorial Park in Window Rock) and the first time it has broadcast its rulings live over KTNN.

In its decision upholding the December 15, 2009, election to reduce the council, the Supreme Court declared invalid a law that required a majority of voters in every chapter to vote "yes" before an initiative could be passed.

The ruling said this would be impossible and now rules a majority of all Navajos throughout the Navajo Nation must vote in favor for an initiative or referendum to be approved.

On the reduction, the court said in January 11, 2011, when a new council is sworn into office, it will be a 24-member council and not an 88-member body.

The Navajo Election Administration was ordered to put a reapportionment plan in place immediately.

"The President's Office shall present a reapportionment plan that has been discussed at community meetings by June 11 (and the tribal election board) shall approve (it) by June 18," the ruling states.

The other issue the high court ruled on was whether the council had the authority to put President Joe Shirley Jr. on administrative leave earlier this year pending the results of an investigation into his involvement with business development fiascos.

The ruling said the concept of putting someone on administrative leave deals with the relationship between an employer and employee. The court pointed out that Shirley is not an employee of the council.

Before any of these rulings were made, however, the court took up the question of Navajo Fundamental Law and how it applied to its decisions.

Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said he and other members of the court were "amazed" when the council passed this resolution last January saying the courts could not use Navajo Fundamental Law.

"This shows disrespect," he said at Friday's announcement.

The court declared the resolution that approved it invalid, taking the position that fundamental law has existed since the beginning of time and "cannot be changed by human beings."

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