FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The top court on the largest American Indian reservation ordered tribal election officials Thursday to postpone the Navajo Nation's presidential election and immediately reprint ballots without the name of a candidate who was disqualified in a language fluency case.
The Navajo Supreme Court's decision was the result of a petition to enforce a disqualification order against Chris Deschene, whose campaign was overshadowed by a debate about the role the Navajo language plays in the tribe's culture and tradition.
A lower court had blocked Deschene from seeking the tribe's top elected post after he refused to show whether he could speak Navajo fluently, a requirement for presidential candidates under tribal law.
Deschene appealed his disqualification, but the high court dismissed it Wednesday because he failed to file the proper documents.
The presidential election is scheduled for Nov. 4, but the Supreme Court said it must be postponed to ensure valid results.
"Decisions have to be made to provide finality to this dispute and to ensure a lawful election," Chief Justice Herb Yazzie and Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley wrote.
Associate Justice Irene Black disagreed that the high court had jurisdiction over the petition, saying it should have first gone to a tribal district court.
Election officials met Thursday to determine the next steps and asked attorneys for clarification on the Supreme Court order, including whether the entire general election that includes a vote for Tribal Council delegates should be postponed or just the presidential election. The disqualification order requires that the third-place finisher from the presidential primary be moved up to replace Deschene.
The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors is scheduled to reconvene Friday morning in Window Rock.
Absentee ballots giving voters a choice between Deschene and former President Joe Shirley Jr. have already gone out, and early voting is underway.
An attorney representing a group of Navajos who support Deschene sent a letter to the board Thursday threatening a lawsuit if the Nov. 4 election is stopped or the official ballot is changed. The group said a general election can be postponed before it begins but not halted once Navajos begin casting ballots.
Deschene has declared that his candidacy is not over. He said he's looking to the Navajo Nation Council to keep it alive. Lawmakers have an emergency bill on their agenda this week to make voters the sole decision-makers when it comes to determining a presidential candidate's fluency.
The legislation is written to apply retroactively to the 2014 election but is subject to amendments. It's unclear whether it could undo a tribal Supreme Court ruling.
"This really has set the stage for a battle between the legislative and the judicial branches, and certainly Chris is hopeful that the legislative branch enacts a fix, and he prevails," said Deschene spokeswoman Stacy Pearson.
Delegate Leonard Tsosie said he co-sponsored the bill because he's concerned about disenfranchising voters who already have picked who they want as their next leader.
"It's just getting more chaotic by the day," Tsosie said.
Delegate Dwight Witherspoon said he doesn't believe the legislation fits the definition of an emergency, which allows bills to bypass committees and public comment.
"It's done to try to benefit one individual," he said.
The challenge against Deschene came after the tribe's primary election in which he came in second to Shirley. Two other contenders, Hank Whitethorne and Dale Tsosie, said Deschene lied when he said he was fluent in Navajo.
Deschene has said he's proficient in the language. He refused to take a fluency test or answer questions in a deposition and a hearing, saying it was unfair that he be singled out and tested on his language ability.
The Navajo language is a defining part of the tribe's culture. More people speak it than any other single American Indian language, according to the U.S. Census Bureau.
Of the tribe's more than 300,000 members, about 169,000 speak Navajo.