Navajo president disqualified in re-election bid

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) June 2010

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. faces a new challenge in his bid to seek an unprecedented third consecutive term, with tribal election officials disqualifying him from the race.

The Navajo Election Administration cited tribal law limiting presidents to two consecutive four-year terms in removing Shirley from the list of candidates.

“There’s no other explanation to it,” said Johnny Thompson of the election administration.

If Shirley was permitted to run, “we would be in violation of the law,” said the disqualification letter received by Shirley’s office Thursday.

Shirley has said the term limit is unjust and he would challenge it, arguing that the Navajo people should decide who they want as their leader. He has 10 days to appeal the decision.

Another candidate in the race, Jerry Todacheene of Shiprock, N.M., already has contested Shirley’s bid, saying the president is violating Navajo law and he should know better than to seek a third term.

No other elected official within the tribal government has term limits. Shirley’s attorney, David Jordan, said he plans to argue that disqualifying Shirley is a violation of his rights to equal protection.

“It’s going to be our position that a term limit is an arbitrary removal of somebody’s liberty without due process and without any reasonable governmental interest in term limits,” Jordan said. “It’s noticeable that none of the council delegates have term limits.”

The tribe’s Supreme Court has ruled in favor of other candidates who have been disqualified from running for the office, yet none of the cases has addressed the law on term limits.

Former presidential hopeful Vern Lee successfully challenged a decision by the election administration four years ago to disqualify him for not meeting residency requirements.

The high court ruled in Lee’s case that the Tribal Council can establish requirements for elected office, but that those requirements must conform to a set of centuries-old traditional tribal laws that state that Navajos have a basic right “to choose leaders of their choice.” But the court noted that although those rights are fundamental, they are not absolute.

The council codified the traditional laws, known as “Dine Fundamental Law,” in 2002 but voted earlier this year to limit the use of them to peacemaking courts.

Whether the fundamental law will factor into Shirley’s case is yet to be seen. Tribal Supreme Court justices are expected to rule Friday on two other cases involving Shirley in which they asked attorneys to weigh in on whether the council’s action to limit the fundamental law was valid.

Shirley served on the Tribal Council when it restructured the government under three branches, creating the tribal presidency and later enacting the two-term limit.

Challenges to his candidacy likely will end up in the tribe’s Supreme Court.

Eleven others, besides Shirley, are seeking the tribe’s presidency. The primary election is scheduled for Aug. 3, and the general election for Nov. 2.