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Navajo high court reduces sanctions for attorney

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) December 2010

The Navajo Nation’s high court has lifted the disbarment of the tribe’s former chief legislative counsel, but he still cannot practice law on the reservation.

The tribal Supreme Court disbarred Frank Seanez last month in an extremely rare disciplinary hearing, after asking him to justify why he was advising the Tribal Council to defy court orders.

Seanez said he was acting within his statutory duties and petitioned the court to reconsider. The court granted the request and reduced sanctions last week, saying his permanent disbarment serves no purpose in healing a government in chaos.

“By so doing, this court is looking ahead in the long-term to protect the integrity and mutual cooperative workings of the three branches,” Chief Justice Herb Yazzie wrote in the court opinion.

The court said while it is unwavering in its finding that Seanez’s actions constituted gross misconduct that require accountability, it gave him an avenue to return to legal practice on the Navajo Nation and be near his family.

Seanez has said that Navajo law allows debate about the legality or appropriateness of court decisions. He said last week that he and his family are thankful for the opportunity to serve the Navajo people and for the reduced sanction. He said they “will decide how to adjust to the restrictions imposed by the court’s order.”

The court said Seanez will be prohibited from practicing law on the reservation for at least four years. He can apply to the court to be reinstated to the Navajo Nation Bar Association after developing an approved course on the ethical standards and responsibilities of tribal government lawyers and teaching the course for three consecutive years.

“The slate cannot simply be wiped clean,” Yazzie wrote.

Seanez also must have a recommendation from the bar association to be reinstated, the court said.

If reinstated, Seanez cannot return to his former job in which he had the authority to issue formal legal opinions, the court ruled. Only the chief legislative counsel and the tribe’s attorney general can issue such opinions.

Seanez’s attorney, Levon Henry, said he’s reviewing the court order to determine its impact on the ethical obligations imposed on Seanez by the court.

“This case has far-reaching impacts on the members of the Navajo Nation Bar Association, especially those in government service,” he said.

The bar association typically reviews complaints about its members, but the high court said it can step in when a member directly confronts the authority of the court.

The court said that Seanez’s advice justified the Tribal Council’s defiance of its orders and provided immunity for that defiance. The enforcement of court orders is essential to the function of the court, Yazzie wrote.

“Under all circumstances, it is the heightened duty of the government lawyer to be independent, candid, neutral rather than partisan because of their duty to the public trust, and most of all thorough in their analysis,” the chief justice said.