Quiet year belies intensive work

By Bill Donovan
Special to the Times

WINDOW ROCK, Dec. 29, 2011

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Times photo - Paul Natonabah

Navajo Nation Chief Justice Herb Yazzie

The past year has been a quiet one for the Navajo Nation's chief justice, Herb Yazzie.

No one on the Navajo Nation Council has tried to engineer his removal like has happened during the fierce debate over reducing the Council from 88 delegates to 24.

And Yazzie and members of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court have seen their efforts to support the voters' wishes for government reform push the government in that direction.

But beneath its placid surface, 2011 was a challenging year for the judicial branch, Yazzie said in an end-of-the year interview.

The biggest effort has been to revise laws and the court system to promote a process that will allow everyone, including social service programs, to work together to resolve problems.

"People need help, especially those who run afoul of the law," Yazzie said.

By using the Navajo value system, Navajo judges can help those who run afoul of the law get back into a useful place in their community, he said.

This is especially true for juvenile offenders, he said.

During the past year, the courts have been working to amend the tribe's Children's Code.

The new laws take effect Jan. 2 and Yazzie said the courts will henceforth "use family conferencing as much as possible" to address problems many Navajo youth have arising from family issues such as domestic violence and alcoholism.

"No department can do it all," he said, which is why the courts are making use of every resource at their command to deal with the social problems eating away at the Navajo family structure.

Jail is not the answer

The key to turning around criminal behavior, Yazzie said, is to address the problem when it first arises, and getting to the core of it.

"The courts do not like to see recidivism - the same people coming through the court system time and again," he said.

Law and order has been a big issue on the reservation in the past, especially when it comes to violent individuals who cause problems not only for their families but for communities and Navajo society as a whole.

That's one reason for the big push to build more jail space and, thanks to federal and tribal money, the tribe will see new jails opening in the next two years in several reservation communities.

But Yazzie said people should not expect that more jail space will mean that judges will be looking to put people behind bars as a way to solve the problems.

"Incarceration is not the answer," he said, pointing out that any court decision has to be made in a way that will provide for the accused to work his way back to his community as a productive member.

"The new facilities that are being built will be constructed with space to allow for counseling," Yazzie said, emphasizing the importance of rehabilitation as the goal.

"You will never have enough jail space if your purpose is to punish and incarcerate," he said.

One key element in doing this, he said, has been the judicial branch's Peacemaker Program, which over the past three decades has received a great deal of positive publicity for its efforts to solve problems in a way that strengthens community and family bonds.

In the past year, the judicial branch established a training program for peacemakers as well as those who act as liaisons between the peacemakers and the courts and Yazzie said he had confidence that this will make the program even more beneficial to the court system.

Council efforts

The big question on the minds many Navajo voters as 2011 began was whether the Supreme Court would continue deciding cases in favor of government reform.

In 2010, the court issued a number of decisions that pushed the Council to begin a dialogue with the Navajo people about what kind of government they want - a goal originally laid out after the fall of former Chairman Peter MacDonald Sr.

If the Council balked, the court indicated in its decisions that it might take action on its own to see that government reform was addressed.

"We, of course, were glad to see the Navajo Nation put funds in the current 2012 budget for the Government Development Commission," Yazzie said.

This is the committee that was created in 1989 and tasked with defining alternate forms of government, based on dialogue with the people, and then putting these up for a general vote so the Navajo people could choose which form of government best suits them.

After being reinstated at the order of the high court, the commission has started holding meetings and Yazzie said he expects that in due time it will present its work to the people.

He said he was also happy to see in 2011 that the bad feelings between the Council and the Supreme Court have gone away.

"It's comforting to know that when education is provided about what the law is, the leadership will generally follow that law," Yazzie said.

Integrity counts

There was a time - in 2010 - when no one knew for sure if the Council would follow the decisions of the Supreme Court when it came to reducing the number of delegates, and other matters. The Council's legal counsel, Frank Seanez, advised it to ignore directives that it had not asked the court to rule on.

The court had to get tough to make its decisions stick, and it did, disbarring Seanez and, when Seanez continued to be seen around the Council Chamber conferring with delegates, ordering the Council to remove him as its adviser.

Since then, harmony between the three branches has been restored and the Supreme Court has not been presented with requests to rule on the conduct or operation of the Council.

But that doesn't mean the Supreme Court won't go to the forefront again if it is called upon to do so, Yazzie said.

"The integrity of the government is so important, not only to the Navajo government but to the people as well," he said, commenting on statements that the actions of 2010, including the prosecution of delegates for misspending discretionary funds, was hurting the image of the government.

"It's painful," Yazzie said. "It may be embarrassing but it is necessary because no government, I believe, can survive if it doesn't have the confidence of the people."

In a way, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court could be looked upon as a watchdog making sure that government officials are guided by strong fiduciary principles, Yazzie said.

"The public's perspective is that the public's money must be used wisely in a transparent manner," he said. "This is what Navajos are taught."

On a more personal note, Yazzie talked about his efforts to get a permanent home built for the Supreme Court, which is now in the works.

For more than three decades, the high court was housed in three portable trailers on a hill near the government complex in Window Rock. A few years ago the offices were moved to the old Damon Building and now the Supreme Court and judicial branch offices are in even more cramped quarters.

Yazzie said architectural drawings for a new judicial building are now being prepared by a Salt Lake City firm. Once the drawings are done, he plans to seek support from the other two branches to get the $13-$15 million necessary to make the building a reality.

Housing the courts in a decent building is important, he said, because it conveys to the people a sense of the integrity of the government.

"The facilities are also important because it is easier to convey the importance of the rule of law if people can actually see the administration of justice in a facility that conveys this importance," Yazzie said.

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