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Opinion | Navajo Supreme Court and its broken court system

Navajo Supreme Court and its broken court system

By Katherine P. LeBlanc

Editor’s note: Katherine LeBlanc is an attorney in private practice in the Navajo Nation since 2002.

In the Independent’s article titled, “Jayne misses work session on Navajo Judicial Branch, Report unveils longstanding systemic issues,” Chair Eugenia Charles-Newton was quoted as stating that “the Law and Order Committee was told 25,000 cases are currently in the system with the judicial branch ….” It is unknown if that number includes the 133 cases pending in the Supreme Court at the end of the 1st quarter 2024 (October-December 2023), a number which has risen steadily, or was merely counting the horrendous backlog of trial court cases. These numbers are extremely worrisome.

Reviewing the data as to the Supreme Court’s own caseload, contained in the Judicial Branch Quarterly Reports for Fiscal Year 2023, spanning October 1, 2022-September 30, 2023, there were a total of 30 cases filed, 23 cases completed, 14 hearings held, 30 orders entered, and no Opinions or Memorandum Decisions entered. The types of proceedings comprising these statistics are civil and criminal appeals, NNBA proceedings such as petitions to swear in new bar applicants, and special proceedings. In fact, a significant number of the actions listed were for NNBA proceedings, rather than appeals.

A total of 117 cases carried forward from 4th quarter 2023. It is difficult to get a clear current picture of the trend, as there is no annual report online for 2023, 2021, 2020, or 2019 and summaries must be taken instead from individual quarterly reports. Conversely, there is one Annual Report for 2022, one for 2018, and one for every year prior to that. However, looking at the 1st Quarter 2024 Report, the disturbing trend is increasing: there were 6 cases filed, 1 case completed, no hearings held, 1 order entered, and again, no Opinions or Memorandum Decisions entered. Worse, the pending cases carried forward have increased to 133.

I compared these numbers to 2012 statistics, the earliest year reflected in the Reports, hoping I was simply overly concerned. Unfortunately, that was not the case. According to the 2012 Judicial Branch Annual Report, there was only 1 pending case carried forward from 2012 to 2013, compared to the 117 at the end of fiscal year 2023, since risen to 133.

I then wondered if there was less work for the Supreme Court in 2012? Again, sadly, that was not the case. In fact, according to the 2012 Annual Report, 92 cases were filed in that year (3.07 times as many as 2023), 89 cases were completed (3.87 times as many), 29 hearings were held (2.07 times as many), 169 orders were entered (5.63 times as many), 10 opinions were issued (10 times as many), and 4 memorandum decisions were entered (4 times as many).

For those of us with pending appeals, whether it be the Navajo Department of Justice which relies on these appeals for guidance in areas of importance to the government and the public, or aggrieved litigants needing desperate relief regarding family and other matters, these statistics and lack of function of the Supreme Court are disturbing. It causes one to wonder, why is there no significant writing coming from the Supreme Court, pursuant to its statutory appellate jurisdiction found at 7 N.N.C. § 302?

Further, no hope seems to be in sight based on the ghosting of staff in the Supreme Court. According to the 4th Quarter Report, the Supreme Court is missing one Associate Justice, the Supreme Court Law Clerk, the Supreme Court Administrator, and the Supreme Court Administrative Service Officer. The conditions which have recently driven people from Supreme Court employment must be investigated by the Navajo Nation, including but not limited to contacting exiting employees directly. The Law and Order Committee has done its best to request input from the Chief Justice, Honorable JoAnn Jayne, through a work session on March 12, 2024, as well as a prior setting. However, it is a matter of record that the Chief Justice failed to appear on each occasion, leaving the LOC and the public stymied.


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