First-ever Navajo ballot initiatives ruled valid

By Felicia Fonseca
Window Rock, Arizona (AP) June 2010

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. scored two legal victories May 28 when the tribe’s Supreme Court ruled that an election to reduce the Tribal Council properly passed, and a council vote to place him on leave was invalid.

Navajos voted overwhelmingly in December to reduce the council from 88 members to 24 and give the president line-item veto authority. Tim Nelson, a Navajo voter from Leupp, challenged the council reduction, saying it should not have passed without a majority vote in each of the tribe’s 110 precincts.

Shirley, who led the initiatives, contended only a simple majority was required for passage.

“The people won,” Shirley said following the court hearing. “The very first time in the history of the Navajo Nation government, the people put on the books laws they wanted, and the court said that should be respected.”

The audience, which gathered below an iconic rock formation for which the tribal capital was named, erupted in applause when Chief Justice Herb Yazzie assured them 24 delegates would be seated on the council Jan. 11. That the justices chose to announce the ruling to an audience, instead of merely issuing a written ruling, spoke to the importance of the case.

Many Navajos have been frustrated not knowing whether the vote would be implemented and had grown tired of the political infighting between the executive and legislative branches as a result of Shirley’s efforts to reform the government.

“It’s really a historical event,” said Delbert Brown, 48, a Navajo man from Gallup, N.M. “I believe for once the people’s voices have really been heard from our court system and it’s long overdue. This nonsense of suing needs to stop and we move forward.”

Nelson said he believes the decision is a victory for Navajos.


“Council is not going to like the decision, it’s not to any incumbent’s favor, but it’s about laws,” he said. “How do we fix vagueness and inconsistencies?”

The high court justices – Yazzie, Eleanor Shirley and Louise Grant – said the super-majority vote is an extraordinary requirement and the council cannot limit Navajos attempting to address their government structure. Their ruling set in place timelines for this year’s elections to move forward. June 11 is the deadline for legislative candidates to file, and a redistricting plan must be approved by June 18. The tribe’s primary election is Aug. 3.

“The people’s government must comply with the mandate issued by its people,” the justices wrote.

Council Delegate Johnny Naize said the new deadlines would give candidates to the council little time to campaign and questioned whether that would be fair.

Critics on the council have said Shirley’s efforts to reform the government are part of personal vendetta and an unfair attack on the legislative branch. So far, the council members at odds with Shirley have come out on the losing end of a number of legal challenges involving the tribal president.

“To me, we’re dealing with a guy who wants power, personal gain,” Delegate Raymond Joe said Friday from his office. “It’s not about the people, it’s about power. How much more do you want? When is enough enough?”

Joe said the decision on the election didn’t come as a surprise, and neither did another decision the justices announced Friday involving a council action to place Shirley on leave.

The council voted in late October to put Shirley on paid leave after hearing two reports that alleged he engaged in illegal and unethical conduct in dealing with two companies that had operated on the reservation. The reports financed by the council have not been made public.

A special prosecutor is investigating the allegations, along with discretionary funding for delegates.

Shirley challenged the measure, and a tribal judge ruled that the council acted outside its authority in placing him on leave. He was reinstated on the eve of the December election. Council Speaker Lawrence Morgan appealed to the high court, which upheld Shirley’s reinstatement.

The law allowing the council to place a president on leave lacks any due process safeguards or any avenue for public participation, the justices wrote, and suggested it should no longer be used. It further suggests improperly that the president is an employee of the council, they wrote.

Because Shirley is elected by majority vote, “his mandate comes from the people,” not the council, the justices said.