- Associated Press - Sunday, May 17, 2015

FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) - The chief justice of the Navajo Nation has retired, ending a decades-long legal career in which he played a key role in upholding a requirement that candidates for tribal president speak the Navajo language fluently.

Herb Yazzie was appointed as head of the tribe’s Judicial Branch in 2005 and earned a lifetime appointment in 2007. During his tenure, he defended the tribal courts’ use of a centuries-old set of traditional laws in deciding cases, showcased the Navajo courts at universities around the country and pushed back against what he saw as the federal government’s attempt to shape tribal courts.

Yazzie faced harsh criticism for the court’s decisions in a case regarding Chris Deschene, who was disqualified from the presidential race for failing to prove he could speak fluent Navajo. Tribal lawmaker Leonard Tsosie led a push to have Yazzie removed from office, saying he was wrongfully interpreting Navajo law. Lawmakers next week will consider legislation to have Navajos vote on electing judges and increase the number of justices on the high court from three to five.

Yazzie defended the court’s actions in a statement announcing his retirement Friday.

“Our past government leaders have always said that when the Supreme Court makes a decision, that is the final decision,” he said. “That law must be complied with no matter how some may view me as an individual. Seeking to use personal attack does not nullify the court’s decision.”

A referendum vote is scheduled in June that, if approved, essentially would remove the requirement for the tribe’s president and vice president to be bilingual.

Yazzie, an Army veteran, is the second person to have served as the top legal official in each of the tribe’s three branches. He graduated from law school at Arizona State University in 1975, where he and two other justices held a special hearing in 2008 regarding a wrongful-death claim in the tribal courts.

The tribe’s high court doesn’t have a courtroom. Instead, it holds hearings in relevant Navajo communities and, on occasion, off the reservation. Stanford University was the site of another hearing in 2010.

Yazzie said his family has been urging him to retire, and he decided to heed the advice after consulting with his elders. Navajo President Russell Begaye will have to appoint his replacement, subject to confirmation by the Navajo Nation Council.

Yazzie said any Navajo leader must have integrity for the people and uphold the value system of the Navajo people. He said he’s hopeful that the Navajo courts “may continue to be the disciplinarian and gatekeeper without interference.”


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