Bill seeks to give Navajo council delegates limited privilege from violations

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) 10-07

A majority of states have constitutional provisions that keep lawmakers from being arrested for certain violations while on their way to or from a legislative session.

Now the speaker of the Navajo Nation Council, Lawrence Morgan, wants his fellow delegates in on the privilege.

A measure on the council’s agenda for the fall session would provide delegates with a limited privilege from arrest for things such as running a stop sign, speeding, jaywalking, hauling livestock without a permit and other civil infractions while traveling to or from a regular session.

Morgan’s bill wouldn’t keep delegates from facing the charges, just from spending time in jail or having to attend court hearings while the council is in session.

Morgan’s interest in the issue stems from an incident last year in which he was arrested on an outstanding warrant, which authorities later discovered had been dismissed.

An officer pulled Morgan over after he ran a stop sign, and a check on his driver’s license revealed he had failed to appear in court for hauling livestock without a permit.

“If this would have been done during a regular session, it would have been hard for him to preside over council because he would have been sitting in jail,” said legislative counsel Raymond Etcitty.

Morgan said he is hopeful the law will boost attendance during council sessions.

A change in the council’s agenda, an override of a presidential veto, a waiver of sovereign immunity or dipping into reserve accounts requires a two-thirds vote of the council, and Etcitty said the absence of any one delegate could affect the vote.

“That 59 vote is a high threshold that applies to many of their laws and procedures, so therefore, one delegate can swing it either way,” Etcitty said. “I believe that’s one general concern.”

Etcitty acknowledged some people are concerned that the delegates might abuse the privilege. But he said “if states have them, well why can’t tribes?”

“No one seems to be concerned about the state legislator, but the heightened concern rises for the tribal legislator,” he said.

Samson Cowboy, director of public safety for the tribe, said council delegates generally are well behaved and follow the law.

“Are we going to manipulate the system?” he asked. “Knowing them, there are a lot of respectful delegates, so I don’t think that’s going to happen. But let’s see what happens on the floor.”

In the states, some of the provisions date back 100 years or more.

“The purpose, historically, is to make sure that legislators attend legislative sessions to vote and represent their districts,” said Brenda Erickson, a senior research analyst at the National Conference of State Legislatures. “That someone couldn’t trump up charges against a legislator to prevent them from being at the legislature to vote on a critical issue.”

The tribal law would apply during regular sessions, although the council’s Public Safety Committee has recommended it be extended to regular and special committee meetings. The council’s Judiciary Committee has voted against the measure.

Delegates meet four times a year for weeklong sessions. The fall session begins Oct. 15 in Window Rock, Ariz.

Among other items on the agenda is the confirmation of Navajo Chief Justice Herb Yazzie to a lifetime term. The council also will consider a bill that would prohibit delegates from serving as elected county officials or as members of public school boards.