Hopi lawmakers suspend tribe’s appellate court

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) 11-08

Hopi lawmakers have voted to suspend the tribe’s appellate court, leaving tribal members without an avenue to dispute decisions of the lower court.

The Hopi Tribal Council voted 10-1 in favor of suspending Hopi Justice Fred Lomayesva and placing him on paid administrative leave during mid November. The council determined that Pro Tem Justices Patricia Sekaquaptewa and Justin Richland were not properly seated on the bench, because their appointments lacked confirmation by lawmakers.

The council contended the justices failed to act objectively and impartially in a case involving tribal Chairman Ben Nuvamsa.

It’s the latest move in what has been political chaos on the reservation, with supporters of Nuvamsa and of Vice Chairman Todd Honyaoma each accusing the other of trying to create a dictatorship on the northern Arizona reservation.

Less than a month after Nuvamsa was sworn into office in March 2007, the tribal council ousted him, saying he didn’t meet the residency requirements. The appellate court later ruled the council’s action unconstitutional.

Among other tribal officials ousted by the council were election board members, whom lawmakers contended didn’t adequately address the residency issue. In September, the council fired the tribal prosecutor shortly after it voted to suspend Nuvamsa’s authority as chairman at the request of religious leaders who said Nuvamsa had disrespected them. The council contended the prosecutor breached her contract by issuing a statement to the media.

Honyaoma gave the appellate court justices a heads-up that the tribal council would consider suspending them a day before the court was to take up a challenge by Nuvamsa regarding the legality of the resolution that suspended his authorities as chairman.

The appellate court earlier ruled to quash an arrest warrant for Nuvamsa that charged him with violating the resolution that called for him to turn over tribal property issued to him.


Ivan Sidney, who preceded Nuvamsa as chairman and now serves as a staff assistant to Honyaoma, said the appellate court should have let the trial court decide the matter and suggested it was fast-tracking Nuvamsa’s cases when others have been pending for months or years.

“I think some people will view this as retaliation against Nuvamsa, but what do you do in this kind of case? Sit back and do nothing?” he said. “Everyone is duty bound to be fair.”

The tribal council removed the justices Nov. 12 as they took up a question from the village of Bacavi over whether Hopi villages have the right to remove their council representatives.

To Nuvamsa, the council’s intention is clear – to blur the distinction between the courts and the lawmakers.

“They have gotten rid of all the separation of powers,” Nuvamsa said. “They obviously got to the legislative branch, then they got to the executive side and now they’re going to the judicial side, so there’s no checks and balances.”

Nuvamsa asked: “What remedy will the people have now when they feel they did not receive justice in the tribe’s lower court?”

The council plans to turn to the Southwest Intertribal Court of Appeals to hear cases pending in Hopi appellate court. About a half-dozen tribes in the Southwest use the free service meant for tribes without a judicial system, said SWICA clerk Elaine Suazo-Miller.

“The council is making sure there is still a process in place and not just leaving the people with nothing,” Sidney said. “This may be the fair way to go on this whole thing.”

Nuvamsa counters that the tribe had a highly trained appellate court.

“We have to fight and try to maintain our sovereignty,” he said. “We have to practice our sovereignty.”