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Navajo High Court’s Delayed Decision Keeps Deschene in Race for Now

Navajo president hopeful Chris Deschene is still in the running after the tribe’s high court delayed a decision about keeping him on the ballot.
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Navajo president hopeful Chris Deschene is still in the running after the tribe’s high court on Monday delayed a decision about whether to keep him on the ballot for the November 4 general election.

Deschene was disqualified from the race October 9 when he refused to take a Navajo fluency test or answer basic questions in Navajo during an Office of Hearings and Appeals inquiry. That decision was based on tribal election law, which requires presidential candidates to speak fluent Navajo.

RELATED: Navajo Fluency Could Change Landscape of Navajo Election, Deschene Out?

Despite the ruling, the Board of Election Supervisors three days later voted to leave Deschene’s name on the ballot pending the outcome of the appeals process. Deschene had 10 days to appeal to the Supreme Court. He filed that appeal Monday, the same day the Supreme Court met for more than two hours to hear oral arguments in the case.

A decision is forthcoming, Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said after the hearing. Referring to the “complicated nature” of the case, Yazzie called for “due deliberation.”

“We would take the matter under advisement and, given that this is an election case, we will be as prompt as we can to announce a decision,” he said. “The court wishes to let all of you know and, hopefully, the Navajo people will know that this matter is of utmost importance.”

Deschene, one of 17 people to compete in the August 26 primary election, came in second to Joe Shirley Jr., who previously served two terms as president. Shortly after the election, two former candidates, Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, filed grievances against Deschene, claiming he lied on his application when he asserted that he speaks fluent Navajo.

RELATED: Native Language Fluency at Center of Navajo Nation Crossroads

The Office of Hearings and Appeals dismissed the grievances, saying they were untimely and lacked standing, but the petitioners appealed the decision to the Supreme Court. Finding that the Navajo language is sacred and fluency is a “reasonable requirement” for president, the high court remanded the case back to Hearings and Appeals, which disqualified Deschene by default judgment.

The Supreme Court’s hearing Monday did not address the question of fluency, but rather whether a disqualified candidate can remain on the ballot.

On the table was a writ of mandamus filed by Tsosie and Whitethorne, which claims the Navajo Nation is in a “state of crisis” because the election board did not automatically remove Deschene from the ballot and replace him with Russell Begaye, who came in third during the primary election. The writ also claims Deschene is violating law by continuing to campaign for office after being disqualified.

“This election dispute needs to be brought to a speedy end,” the writ states. “The Navajo people deserve to know, once and for all, who will be the candidates for president in this upcoming election. …This court, as the final arbiter of law on the Navajo Nation, needs to step in to give finality to this dispute and to inform the Navajo people who the proper candidates are going to be.”

Attorneys for the petitioners say the election board was wrong in not automatically removing Deschene from the ballot. An attorney representing the nine-member election board argued that the board was following election law and decided not to take action until the appeals process was exhausted.

Meanwhile, the Navajo Nation Council is holding its regular fall session. On the agenda are two pieces of emergency legislation that amend election law.

Legislation 0298-14 states that “language proficiency shall be determined by the people voting in favor of the person.” Legislation 0301-14 amends the Navajo Nation Election Code to outline procedures and deadlines in election disputes.