Navajo legislative counsel advises on term limits

By Felicia Fonseca
Albuquerque, New Mexico (AP) May 2010

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. cannot seek a third term under tribal law, an attorney for the Navajo Nation Council said in a legal opinion issued Thursday.

The opinion came amid speculation that Shirley will seek re-election as the leader of the country’s largest American Indian reservation. His spokesman, George Hardeen, dismissed the opinion as paranoia.

Council spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler says if Shirley files for the post by  deadline, “he is breaking the law.”

The opinion authored by chief legislative counsel Frank Seanez is his first since the council expanded his authorities to do so. The provisions of tribal law “limit the Navajo Nation president to serve no more than two terms,” he wrote in response to a question raised by council Delegate Young Jeff Tom.

Shirley arguably could seek a third consecutive term under a set of laws based on the tribe’s centuries-old traditional values and customs, known as Dine Fundamental Law. The law states that Navajos have the right to freely choose their leaders.

Shirley’s efforts likely would be challenged in court, though tribal judges recently were stripped of the ability to base any decisions on fundamental law.

The council voted earlier this year to limit the use of fundamental law to peacemaking courts, which do not hear election issues. The council’s action has been harshly criticized and the tribe’s high court has been urged to maintain the use of the laws. They are believed to have been handed down by deities as a way to preserve the Navajo way of life.

Seanez said the clear and plain language of Navajo statutory law “cannot be overcome by claims that the presidential two-term limit is invalid on the basis of claimed inconsistency with the Dine Fundamental Law.”

Hardeen said it should be no concern to the council whether Shirley runs.

“If he wants to run, leave it to the courts to decide any legal questions, rather than the political body that’s done everything it could to thwart his efforts and throw him out of office,” he said.

Four people have filed so far to run for Navajo president and paid the $1,500 filing fee. They are: Donald Benally, vice president of the tribe’s Shiprock Chapter in New Mexico, Navajo Vice President Ben Shelly, council Delegate Rex Lee Jim and former Arizona state Rep. Daniel Peaches.

The tribe’s primary election is scheduled for Aug. 3, and the general election for Nov. 2.