Navajo Nation Chief Justice Looks To Congress To Address Indian Court Needs

Washington, D.C. – Navajo Nation Chief Justice Robert Yazzie and Navajo Nation Council Delegate Willie Grayeyes met with Congressional delegates and federal agencies this week to discuss the needs of Indian courts.

Chief Justice Yazzie and Council Delegate Grayeyes met with Senator Pete Domenici on Monday, where Chief Justice Yazzie emphasized the lack of funds needed to construct acceptable court facilities on the Navajo Nation and advocated for the construction of a Navajo Nation Judicial Complex.

This complex will house the entire Judicial Branch, including space for state and federal officials to utilize. In fiscal year 2002, Senator Domenici supported funding for the complex, but was not able to gain enough congressional backing. During the meeting Senator Domenici again voiced his support of the complex, indicating he will try again to have funds appropriated.

Another concern raised by Council Delegate Grayeyes is the increased caseloads carried by Navajo Nation court staff. Without funding from the Indian Tribal Justice Technical and Legal Assistance Act of 2000 or the Indian Tribal Justice Act passed in 1993, the court staff will continue to suffer from the excessive workload. To date, funds have never been appropriated for either Acts.

On Wednesday, February 27, Chief Justice Yazzie testified before the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs regarding the impact and effect of the recent Supreme Court decisions on Navajo sovereignty. In his testimony, Chief Justice Yazzie stated, “Neither Indians nor non-Indians have a clear understanding of what happens when someone commits an act or causes harm in Indian country.”

“Businesses with right-of-ways or leases on Navajo Nation land, such as utilities and pipelines, are now claiming that the Navajo Nation has no authority to regulate or sue them,“ Chief Justice Yazzie continued, “Although the businesses are saying we have no authority to regulate them, the Navajo Nation still provides emergency medical services and police protection for them. In sum, recent United States Supreme Court decisions have made it impossible to maintain a functioning civil government in the Navajo Nation to safeguard the public. The recent rulings are not grounded in the Constitution. In fact, the United States Supreme Court has openly invited Congress to clarify these jurisdictional complexities. It is time for Congress to act.”

Senator Daniel Inouye, chairman of the committee, stated, “Is it racism from the Supreme Court?” Chief Justice Yazzie responded by saying, “No matter what we do, even if we have the best functioning court system in the country, according to the Supreme Court we are still not good enough.”

Senator Inouye assured the tribal leaders that the Indian Affairs committee would do something.

The Navajo Nation Washington Office played a central role in addressing the issues by facilitating the meetings. Chief Justice Yazzie and Council Delegate Grayeyes completed the week meeting with Congressional staff from the offices of Congressman John Conyers, Ranking Member of the House Judiciary Committee; Senator Jeff Bingaman, Chairman of the Energy and Natural Resources Committee; Congressman Joe Skeen, member of the House Appropriations Committee; and Congressman C.W. Bill Young, Chairman of the House Appropriations Committee.

In addition to the congressional meetings, they also met with U.S. Department of Justice, Office of Tribal Justice officials, the Bureau of Indian Affairs Tribal Court Specialist and attended portions of the National Congress of American Indians Winter Session.

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