March 01, 2017

Guardians of Tribal Tradition: Litigation in the Navajo Nation

To appear in tribal court, litigators must be conversant in Navajo legal principles.

Paul Spruhan

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At a recent annual conference of the Navajo Nation Bar Association, the Navajo Supreme Court held an oral argument. I argued for the Navajo Nation’s government. The case was an appeal from a criminal conviction by the Shiprock District Court. A judge had been convicted after a bench trial of abuse of office under the Navajo Criminal Code, and he argued on appeal that the trial court erred in accepting certain testimonial evidence.

For those versed in appeals in state and federal courts, the scene would have been familiar. Three justices of the Navajo Supreme Court heard legal arguments first from the appellant and then the appellee, then a rebuttal from the appellant. The main discussion concerned what level of deference the court should give to the trial court’s ruling, whether the evidence presented at trial was sufficient, and whether the facts as found met the elements defined in the statutory offense. At the end, the court took the case under advisement and stated it would issue a written opinion shortly. (The court did issue its opinion in Navajo Nation v. Tso on October 25, 2016, affirming the conviction. The court denied Judge Tso’s motion for reconsideration on January 27, 2017.)

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