Navajo court rejects new primary presidential election

AP News
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Posted: Feb 20, 2015 9:25 PM

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. (AP) — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court struck down legislation Friday that would have allowed a do-over of last year's presidential primary election for the nation's largest American Indian reservation.

The high court said in its order that it was rejecting the Navajo Nation Council's "feeble attempt" to confound the election process.

"Because of the self-interested actions of the Board and the Council to disregard Navajo laws, the presidential election is now more than three months late," the court stated in its opinion. "The initial effort of this Court to have the election by Jan. 31, 2015 has been further delayed by the Council's most recent grab for power."

The justices asked the council speaker to hold a special session as early as possible to secure appropriate funding for a general election. The court also ordered the director of the Navajo Election Administration to hold the presidential contest between Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye without further delay.

Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, who were primary election candidates, had petitioned the court to strike down the council's legislative action.

Justin Jones, an attorney representing Whitethorne, praised the court's decision.

"Today, I think the Supreme Court just nailed it right on the nose," Jones said. "The arguments they had used or conclusions they used in their opinion substantiating those conclusions are pretty much arguments we presented to the court in our briefs."

Council Delegate Leonard Tsosie said the court's decision essentially took away the Navajo people's right to choose their leader.

"The court accuses the council of legislative maneuvering when all we were trying to do was recognize the fact that times have changed and we have many young candidates that have limited Navajo speaking ability," Tsosie said. "But they choose to be leaders, and they want to be leaders."

The tribe's presidential election has been embroiled in court challenges, protests and attempts by tribal lawmakers to switch up election law and reinstate candidates.

Chris Deschene was the second-highest vote-getter in the August primary. But he was disqualified after he failed to prove he could speak Navajo fluently. Begaye replaced him and survived a court battle over his own qualifications.

Despite the high court mandating a presidential election, lawmakers approved a proposed do-over. They floated the idea of a write-in candidate, throwing the race further into confusion.

The court put a stay on its order to hold an election after being asked to strike down the council's action. The legal briefings heavily incorporated Navajo culture and tradition regarding leadership.

Attorneys for the Navajo Nation Council and with the tribe's Department of Justice asked the high court to put the latest case on hold so that the parties could talk out their differences. The Supreme Court rejected those suggestions. It generally encourages peacemaking as a traditional form of dispute resolution but allows it only when everyone is on board.

President Ben Shelly, who badly lost his re-election bid, has been serving as the tribe's top leader until the election dispute gets sorted out.