High court disbars Council's lawyer

By Noel Lyn Smith
Navajo Times

WINDOW ROCK, Oct. 22, 2010

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(Times photo - Leigh T. Jimmie)

Chief Legislative Counsel Frank Seanez appears in the Navajo Nation Council chambers on Friday.

In a rare decision, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court disbarred Chief Legislative Counsel Frank Seanez for issuing advice to his client - the Navajo Nation Council - to ignore its rulings regarding the Navajo Government Development Commission.

The high court ordered Seanez to explain why he advised the Council not to obey its order to revive the government development commission.

In an Oct. 18 writ of prohibition, the court ordered Seanez to immediately stop giving legal advice and issuing written opinions.

The justices specifically questioned the advice that Seanez gave to the Council on two matters.

In a Sept. 10 opinion, Seanez advised the delegates that they had the authority to amend Titles 2, 7 and 11 of the Navajo Nation Code in regards to the referendum to elect judges and justices.

On Aug. 4, Seanez issued a legal memo to the Council stating that the Supreme Court exceeded its jurisdiction when it ordered the Council to reinstate the commission.

He stated in his memo that "the court has no such authority within the powers delegated to it by the Navajo Nation Council." Seanez today, Oct. 22, went in front of Chief Justice Herb Yazzie and Associate Justice Eleanor Shirley, whom the Judiciary Committee voted to remove on Oct. 18.

In his opening statement, Seanez told the court that the Office of Legislative Counsel Amendments Act of 2010 authorized him to issue legal opinions when requested by the Council. The Council approved the amendments in January.

Throughout the hour-long hearing, Yazzie continually asked Seanez to explain why he advised his client to defy the court.

"You disagreed with the final decision of the court and failed to advise your client what the law is," Yazzie said.

Seanez's response was that it is not always easy to interpret the court's opinions but he does his best.

He added that he tries to give meaning to both the court's decision and Navajo law in order to serve his client.

When Yazzie asked for more information about the council's funding for the operation of the commission, Seanez declined to answer because he said it would violate attorney-client privileges.

In his defense, Seanez told the court that he started working for the Navajo Nation in November 1991.

"I have attempted in that time period to live within the Navajo life way," Seanez said, saying he has attended ceremonies, consulted with medicine people, and enrolled in Navajo language classes.

He noted that he understands the importance of K'e to the Navajo people.

"I am imperfect, I do recognize that," Seanez said. "What I try to do is to learn from what I encounter." Shirley pointed out that members of the Navajo Nation Bar Association are required to take classes about Navajo law, culture, traditions and history in order to become familiar with the clients they serve.

She said she read Seanez's Sept. 10 opinion and Aug. 4 memo and they both did not reflect K'e.

Before calling for a recess to deliberate on Seanez's fate, Yazzie emphasized that the Supreme Court carries the final interpretation of the law.

"What I heard today is when the chief legislative counsel issues opinions it doesn't have to state what the law is but what the law should be," Yazzie said.

After the decision was issued to disbar Seanez, the Navajo Times asked for a comment, which he declined.

The court also ordered the Navajo Nation Bar Association to immediately disbar Seanez.

After the hearing, Seanez returned to the council, which had reconvened its fall session, but he did not return to his usual place at the right hand side of the speaker.

Instead, Seanez sat on the north side of the council in the spectator's area.

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