Court ruling keeps Navajo president from 3rd term

By Felicia Fonseca
Flagstaff, Arizona (AP) July 2010

Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr.’s quest for a third consecutive term ended July 9 when the tribe’s high court ruled that he was rightfully disqualified from the race.

Elections officials cited a tribal law stating that Navajo presidents are limited to two back-to-back terms in office in removing him from the race. Shirley twice appealed but the rulings weren’t in his favor. “I respect the decision of our Supreme Court justices,” Shirley said. “They had the final say. They decided and now I know that this is the end of it.”

The high court heard oral arguments and expedited the ruling because of concerns about the timeliness of the upcoming election. The tribe’s primary election is less than a month away, and the top two vote-getters among 11 presidential candidates will move on to the Nov. 2 general election.

Shirley could ask the high court to reconsider its decision, but his attorney, David Jordan, said he did not plan to do so. A formal court opinion was expected later.

Tribal Council spokesman Joshua Lavar Butler said the court displayed good judgment in denying Shirley a third term.

“President Shirley was one individual advocating the notion that laws should be followed but surprisingly defied laws to seek a third term,” Butler said. “Our Navajo people’s voice is paramount, and they should be the only ones to make such a determination of term limits.”

Shirley first appealed the decision to disqualify him from the race to the tribe’s Office of Hearings and Appeals, contending it violated his liberty interests and equal protection rights. No other elected official within the tribal government is subject to term limits.

Shirley further argued that Navajos have the right to choose their leaders under traditional tribal law, which he said supersedes the term limit statute.

A hearing officer ruled that the term limit is not unreasonable and ensures that no one individual becomes entrenched in the tribal presidency.

The high court affirmed that decision and acknowledged that although Navajos have a fundamental right to choose their leaders, that right is not absolute and can be regulated.

Navajo presidential hopeful Jerry Todacheene of Shiprock, N.M., first challenged Shirley’s bid for a third term. That case and the one spurred by the election office’s decision were consolidated.

Tribal Vice President Ben Shelly, who is seeking the presidency, said the ruling was important in preserving the Navajo way of life, strengthening core values and reaffirming the purpose of the traditional laws, known as Dine Fundamental Law.

“Fundamental law is for our future, for the people to use with discretion,” he said. “The Supreme Court in their wisdom has affirmed this tenet.”

Shirley served on the Tribal Council when it reorganized the government under three branches in the late 1980s and enacted the term limit for the tribal president. The changes came at a time when political power was concentrated in the hands of tribal Chairman Peter MacDonald, who was ousted because of a corruption scandal and served time in federal prison.

Shirley said he voted for the changes then under the assumption that Navajos would have an opportunity to ratify them, but that hasn’t happened. He sought a third term to continue efforts to reform the government, which included reducing the Tribal Council from 88 members to 24 and securing a presidential line-item veto through ballot initiatives.

Shirley said he’ll now work toward finishing out his term and tying up loose ends. He offered no insight on what, if any, plans he has for the future.

“What happened today is enough,” Shirley said. “Tomorrow is promised to no one. I’ve always been a person with a positive attitude, believing in the creator. I know there are a lot of good things that are out there.”