Table Of Contents

Navajo Nation Courts
Navajo Courts In Navajo Nation Government Structure
Independent Navajo Courts
Laws Applied In Navajo Courts
Court Rules

Navajo Nation Judiciary Selection And Appointment


Navajo Nation Courts
by the Harvard Law School

The courts of the Navajo Nation came into existence on April 1, 1959. In the 1985 Judicial Reform Act, the Navajo Nation Council revised the Navajo Nation Judicial Branch to give more flexibility and to promote Navajo common law in the courts. In 1989, the Navajo Nation Council and the Judicial Review Task Force reported that using Navajo common law and Navajo legal traditions was a way to the future.

The Navajo word for "law" is beehaz'annii; it means something fundamental, something that is absolute and exists from the beginning of time. Navajo's say, "life comes from behaz'aanni; because it is the essence of life." Its foundation comes from the songs and prayers of the Dine.

We have a vision for the Navajo Nation Courts: It is not to punish; boss people around; have courts be seen as powerful people who tell others how to live their lives; or courts being distant and alien from the people. It is a vision of courts as partners in the process of making it possible for Navajos to live freely as Navajos!

The Honorable Robert Yazzie
Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation

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Navajo Courts In
Navajo Nation Government Structure

The sovereign Navajo Nation has the powers to make laws, execute its laws, and apply and enforce its laws. The Navajo Nation Council makes the laws; The Executive Branch executes those laws; and the Navajo Nation courts apply and enforce those laws.

The Navajo Nation courts make up the Judicial Branch of the Navajo Nation. The Judicial Branch is one of three branches of the Navajo Nation government. The other two branches are the Legislative Branch, made up of the Navajo Nation Council, and the Executive Branch, headed by the President of the Navajo Nation. The Judicial Branch operates as an equal to the other two branches.

The Navajo Nation operates a two level court system: the trial courts and the Navajo Nation Supreme Court. Cases begin in the trial courts. Appeals of trial court decisions are made to the Navajo Nation Supreme Court, which is located in Window Rock, Arizona. Individuals have their rights protected and claims settled fairly in the Navajo court. The Navajo courts handle over 90,000 cases a year.

The Navajo Nation courts consist of seven judicial districts. Each judicial district has a district court and five of the seven districts have a separate family court. The courts located in Arizona are at Tuba City, Kayenta, Chinle and Window Rock. In New Mexico, they are located in Shiprock, Crownpoint, and Ramah. Two satellite courts under the Ramah district are located in New Mexico at Canoncito and Alamo.

Seventeen judges make up the Navajo judiciary. Fourteen are trial judges who preside in the district and family courts. Three are appellate judges who preside in the Supreme Court. One appellate judge is the Chief Justice and two are Associate Justices.

In the districts, the trial judge supervises the court staff and administers the court with the help of the court administrator. The chief justice prepares the budget, sets and implements policies, and oversees Judicial Branch operations.

Judicial Branch employees who are not judges work under the Judicial Branch Personnel Policies and Procedures and the Employee Code of Ethics. Judges operate under Title 7 of the Navajo Nation Code, the Navajo Nation Code of Judicial Conduct, the chief justice's supervision and various court rules.

The Navajo Nation Judicial Branch operates on funds from the federal government and Navajo Nation general funds.

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Independent Navajo Courts

The Navajo courts are independent from political influence and external pressures. Cases are decided using evidence properly admitted by the court and by applying the applicable laws. To ensure that the Navajo courts will be free from political influence and bias, the Navajo Nation Council in 1958 created a system for appointment (instead of election) of Navajo Nation judges.

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Jurisdiction is the power of a court to decide a case. The Navajo trial courts have general civil jurisdiction and limited criminal jurisdiction. Navajo civil jurisdiction extends to all persons (Indian and non-Indian) who reside in Navajo Indian Country or have caused an action to occur in Navajo Indian Country. The Navajo courts criminal jurisdiction extends to all crimes codified in the Navajo Nation Code along with its terms of punishment. The Navajo courts have criminal jurisdiction over Indians only and not over non-Indians. The Navajo courts have the power to sentence a person to a maximum of six months in jail or a $500 fine or both.

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has jurisdiction over appeals from final decisions of the trial courts and certain administrative agencies. The Supreme Court decides only on issues of law raised on the record of appeal. The district courts have jurisdiction over all other matters that the family courts do not hear. The Navajo family courts have jurisdiction over matters involving children, probate, name changes, quiet title, and domestic relations.

Parties to a case can present their case without an attorney to a district court using small claims proceedings. There are certain requirements for this procedure. Ask the court clerk for forms and information on use of small claims proceedings.

People can also use the Navajo Peacemaker Division to solve their disputes. The division is attached to the trial courts. It uses Navajo traditional laws and procedures in a Navajo mediation setting to arrive at consensual solutions to disputes. Ask the court clerk for forms and information on the use of peacemaking division proceedings.

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Laws Applied In Navajo Courts

The choice of law statute is found at 7 N.T.C. SS 204. Navajo common law and statutory laws are the laws of preference in the Navajo courts. Otherwise, federal law if applicable, is used. Lastly, state law may be applied.

Navajo common law includes the traditional ways of the Navajo people. Lawyers and advocates regularly argue Navajo common law in the Navajo courts. Navajo common law is found in books and articles on Navajo culture and in Navajo court opinions (found in the Navajo Reporter). Navajo elders and teachers of Navajo culture are also sources of Navajo common law. The statutory law of the Navajo Nation is found in the Navajo Tribal Code. Legal opinions of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court and of the trial courts are found in the Navajo Reporter and the Indian Law Reporter.

The Indian Civil Rights Act (a federal law) and the Navajo Nation Bill of Rights require the Navajo courts to safeguard the rights of individuals. One important right is the defendant has a right to a jury trial in criminal cases. There are other rights guaranteed to the criminal defendant by these laws.

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Court Rules

The Navajo courts have adopted rules, which guide litigants through the courts. These are rules of pleadings, practice and procedure. They are rules of criminal, civil and appellate procedures, evidence, domestic violence and probate.

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Only members of the Navajo Nation Bar Association (NNBA) can practice in the Navajo courts. To become a member, an applicant must have proper moral character and fitness and pass an examination. There are over 300 members of the NNBA. The membership has attorneys (law school graduates) and lay advocates (non-law school graduates, but with legal training). The NNBA office has a directory of all the members. The telephone number is (602) 871-2211.

The NNBA has committees that operate the association. One committee is the disciplinary committee, which hears complaints against lawyers and advocates and disciplines when necessary. If you need further information, call the NNBA office at (602) 871-2211.

People can represent themselves in Navajo courts. In criminal cases, the judge can appoint counsel for a person if the person is unable to afford counsel. Ask the judge for appointment of counsel immediately.

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Navajo Nation Judiciary
Selection And Appointment

The Navajo Nation uses the appointment system in filling judge positions. In 1958, the Navajo Nation Council said, "In order to give adequate authority to the judges, obtain the best qualified personnel for courts and to remove the judges, insofar as possible, from the pressure of politics in making decisions and enforcing the law, it is essential that Navajo tribal judges hereafter be appointed rather than be elected." Navajo Tribal Council Res. CO-69-58 (October 16, 1958).

An applicant for a judge position must meet qualifications set forth in Title 7 Section 354 of the Navajo Nation Code. The initial screening, interviewing and scoring of all applicants is done by the Judiciary Committee of the Navajo Nation Council.

The Judiciary Committee sends the names of the most qualified applicants to the President of the Navajo Nation, who appoints one person from the panel to fill the vacancy. The president's appointee then goes before the Navajo Nation Council for confirmation. Upon confirmation, the new judge serves a probationary term of two years.

During the probationary term, the new judge must attend training offered by the National Judicial College in Reno, Nevada or the National Indian Justice Center from Petaluma, California. The new judge must satisfactorily complete his or her course of training. The new judge is evaluated periodically by the chief justice of the Navajo Nation, the Judiciary Committee and the Navajo Nation president. The judge is then eligible for permanent appointment by the Navajo Nation Council. Probationary judges can be removed summarily by the president of the Navajo Nation upon recommendation of the Judiciary Committee. Any Navajo Nation judge can be removed for cause by the Navajo Nation Council. A recommendation for removal of a permanent judge can be made by the chief justice of the Navajo Nation or the Judiciary Committee or both.

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