Supreme Court: election must proceed April 21

WINDOW ROCK, Ariz. - On March 20, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court ordered the general election between Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye to take place as previously scheduled for April 21.

The court did not rule on council legislation that ordered a public referendum dealing with fluency requirements for the president and vice president in its order.

On March 13, the council voted 12-8 in favor of the vote going to the Navajo people before the general election takes place. The council voted that the $317,891 that was to be used for the general election instead be used to put on the referendum. President Ben Shelly signed the legislation March 16.

Two former presidential candidates Dale E. Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne originally challenged presidential candidate's Chris Deschene's candidacy on the basis of whether he was fluent in Navajo. They also filed motions with the court in January to overturn the council resolution of Dec. 30 that called for a new primary and general election and another resolution that pardoned the Navajo Nation Board of Election supervisors. On March 18, Tsosie and Whitethorne filed a motion with the court to address the non-funding of the April 21 election, to enforce the Feb. 20 ruling by the court, which ordered an immediate general election between Shirley and Begaye and to impose sanctions on the council.

"The import of this current crisis cannot be understated," the motion reads. "If the council is allowed to stop a presidential election from occurring, serious questions arise about whether the Navajo Nation government can be considered democratic anymore. The top two qualified candidates are now prevented from having an election. The ninth-place finisher sits in Window Rock as president."

However, a statement from Navajo Nation Council Speaker LoRenzo Bates said the legislation funds the referendum and also funds the general election and because the legislation was signed by Shelly it is now valid Navajo Nation law.

"Mr. Tsosie and Mr. Whitethorne are attempting to take away the people's right to decide this important issue," Bates' statement said. "The Navajo Nation Council, in addressing this resolution, is giving this issue to the Navajo people as the Navajo courts have previously decided in their court opinions. This election for Navajo president and vice president will take place as soon as possible, but after the people have spoken."

The Navajo Nation Election Administration scheduled a presidential election for April 21 in response to a Navajo Nation Supreme Court order for a general election to take place between Joe Shirley Jr. and Russell Begaye.

The general election will also fill six positions for the Navajo Nation Board of Election Supervisors (NBOES). The chief justice of the Supreme Court held the board members in contempt of court for refusing to remove Deschene from the ballot and replace his name with third place primary finisher Begaye.

Edison Wauneka, director of the Navajo Nation Election Administration, said April 21 is the earliest an election could be held and still comply with filing deadlines.

The Supreme Court ordered the NEA Feb. 20 to put on an immediate general election at the same time it invalidated two council resolutions from December that called for a special primary and general election to be held in June and August with all 17 primary finishers, including Deschene, who was ultimately disqualified for failing to answer questions in Navajo before the Office of Hearings and Appeals. The resolution also called for a pardon for the election supervisors who were held in contempt.

In its ruling on March 20, the Supreme Court said the Navajo Nation has a governmental duty to conduct a presidential election every four years in accordance with existing Navajo election laws. The court said the Navajo people are entitled, as a matter of basic right and freedom, to an election at the expense of their government and with the use of their public funds.

"We repeat with emphasis that the council cannot impede or otherwise obstruct this obligation so they can unilaterally change the election laws in the midst of an ongoing election," the court said.

The court ordered the election administration to use its available operating money to implement the special general election as scheduled, have the acting controller of the Nation immediately identify and transfer $317,891 to the NEA to supplement or replenish its operating line items for the purpose of ensuring that the Navajo Nation's governmental duty is carried out.

In addition the court shielded Wauneka from any retaliatory action, saying he cannot be forcibly removed from his post for complying with the court's orders.

The court refused to sanction the council and refused to compel funding of the special general election through the Navajo Nation Council.

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