Navajo court removes presidential candidate over language dispute

Reuters News
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Posted: Oct 22, 2014 5:17 PM

By David Schwartz

PHOENIX (Reuters) - The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has rejected an appeal by a tribal presidential hopeful to remain on the Nov. 4 ballot after he was disqualified for refusing to prove his fluency in the Navajo language, court documents showed on Wednesday.

The tribe's highest court ruled that Chris Deschene failed to file the proper paperwork in his appeal of a hearing panel's decision to remove him from the general election contest.

"The court hereby dismisses the appeal for the lack of jurisdiction," the justices wrote, adding that any request for reconsideration will be denied.

The tribe requires all presidential candidates be fluent in Navajo, which U.S. Census estimates show is spoken by decreased numbers. The sprawling Navajo Nation covers parts of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico totaling 27,425 square miles.

In a unanimous ruling on Tuesday, the three-member court did not address the tribe's controversial fluency mandate.

A Deschene spokeswoman was not immediately available for comment.

Deschene was to have faced off against ex-tribal president Joe Shirley Jr. to decide the next leader of the United States' largest Native American tribe.

But the race was thrown into doubt when a hearing officer ruled on Oct. 9 that Deschene be disqualified because he refused to answer questions in Navajo posed to him during proceedings.

Deschene, who says he can speak the language, said he would not be tested on his fluency and has argued that the will of the people who picked him in the primary election be respected.

The hearing officer was acting on a challenge by two unsuccessful candidates, who claimed that Deschene lied about his fluency.

"We're very happy that the Navajo court system has vindicated the fluency requirement," said attorney David Jordan, who represented one of the individuals challenging Deschene's candidacy. "It's unfortunate that it had to end on a procedural issue."

Still formally before the court is an appeal by the two defeated candidates to a tribal election panel decision to keep Deschene on the ballot.   

(Editing by Dan Whitcomb and Sandra Maler)