Navajo Nation Supreme Court

Summary of 2012 Opinions

DISCLAIMER: The information provided below is intended for educational purposes and in no way replaces the opinoins themselves. The information below may not be relied on or otherwise cited in legal proceedings. If information in the summary conflicts with the actual opinion in any way, please notify the Supreme Court Law Clerk.

 Last updated on 08/28/2013

  1. Navajo Nation v. RJN Construction Management, Inc., Robert J. Nelson, and the Home for Women and Children, No. SC-CV-13-11 (Jan 17, 2012).
  2. Victor Bowman v. Delores Greyeyes, No. SC-CV-63-11 (January 24, 2012).
  3. Navajo Housing Authority v. John Dennision, No. SC-CV-04-12 (April 20, 2012).
  4. In the Matter of M.C., No. SC-CV-16-12 (July 12, 2012). 
  5. Roger Baker v. Delores Greyeyes, No. SC-CV-43-12 (August 24, 2012).
  6. Navajo Housing Authority v. Daniel Johns, et al, No. SC-CV-18-10 (September 10, 2012). 
  7. Maurice James v. Window Rock Family Court and Concerning Nadine Watson, Michael Katoney and J.L.J., a Minor Child, Real Parties in InterestNo. SC-CV-06-12  (October 8, 2012).
  8. Evelyn Meadows v. Navajo Nation Labor Commission and Concerning Dine College, Real Party in Interest. Writ of Mandamus. No. SC-CV-64-11 (November 2, 2012).
  9. Will Graven v. Lawrence T. Morgan and James J. Davis.  No. SC-CV-32-10 (November 9, 2012).
  10. Glenyal Bahe v. Adam PlateroNo. SC-CV-48-12 (December 20. 2012).

Navajo Nation v. RJN Construction Management, et al, No. SC-CV-13-11 (Jan 17, 2012).

In this appeal filed by RJN, the Home for Women and Children, and Robert Nelson, the Supreme Court affirms the lower court's permanent order enjoining appellants from blocking access to the worksite and otherwise interfering with the Navajo Nation's legal obligation to build a shelter facility pursuant to a business site lease issued to the Home by the Navajo Nation.  The Court stated that a business site leaseholder's possessory right on tribal trust land is strictly limited by the specific purposes for which the lease has been approved for the holder.  The Court further stated that while the lower court was wrong in excluding contract-based justifications from RJN on the basis of sovereign immunity, the justifications were only relevant insofar as they bear on the consideration of the injunction itself as an equitable remedy. In this case, the Court found harmless error. 
  • Claims for Relief by Businesses: Courts must verify that a business is authorized to do business on Nation before allowing their claims to be considered, unless ultimate decision is in equity and other party has not raised a challenge.
  • "Best Interest of the Diné people" Standard: Courts shall assess governmental and individual action in regards to business site leases using this standard.
  • Leaseholds Tied to Specific Use: BSLs are not mere tenancies, and the right to possess, use and occupy is tied to their authorized use.
  • Possessory Interest is both physical control and intent to exercise this control.
  • Sovereign Immunity and Non-Monetary Defenses: Sovereign immunity is not a bar to non-monetary defenses.
  • Injunctions are an equitable remedy which the Court may issue on behalf of the public when public funds or facilities are threatened.
  • Equity in fundamental law means a balance of hardships and a result fundamentally fair to all.
  • Rights under fundamental law means both individual and collective rights.
  • BSL Administrative Process to address business concerns should be made clear by the Council.
  • BSL Regulations Specifically for Non-Profits do not yet exist and should be considered by the Council.

Bowman v. Greyeyes, No. SC-CV-63-11 (January 24, 2012).

Bowman files a petition asking the Court to reconsider its Dec. 14, 2011 denial of his application for a writ of habeas corpus.  Reconsideration petitions for special actions where jurisdiction has been declined may not be filed without leave of the Court. The Court treats the petition as a motion for leave but states that, in future, petitions for leave must first be filed pursuant to N.R.C.A.P. Rule 19(d), and
 must contain sufficient detail for the Court to rule on the request.  In this case, the Court denies the motion as Bowman offers no new argument. 
  • Leave of the Supreme Court is required before the filing of requests for reconsideration pursuant to NRCAP, Rule 19(d).

NHA v. Dennision, No. SC-CV-04-12 (April 20, 2012).

The Court denies NHA's motion for enlargement of time to file a transcript after a previous motion has been denied by the district court, ruling that the district court's discretion pursuant to N.R.C.A.P. Rule 9(a)(2)  includes the authority to deny such motions upon a finding that diligence was lacking. 
  • Rule 6(b) and 6(b)(2) Meaning: A majority of the Court may both grant or deny a procedural motion pursuant to NRCAP, Rule 6(b) and 6(b)(2) together without waiting for a response.
  • Rule 9(a)(2) District Court Authority to Deny Motions for More Time to Transmit Record: The district court's authority pursuant to NRCAP, Rule 9(a)(2) includes discretion to deny a motion for enlargement of time to transmit the record upon a specific finding that no good cause exists justifying the extension.
  • Rule 5(b) Relief: When the N.R.C.A.P. Rule 9(a)(2) time limit passes without a transcript having been filed and without an extension request made to the district court, N.R.C.A.P. Rule 5(b) is available to the appellant to ask this Court, upon a showing of good cause, to shorten or extend the time for filing the record; However, "good cause" does not mean addressing a matter that has previously been, or should have been, brought to the attention of the lower court. Rule 5(b) is not to be used to skirt the Rule 9(a)(2) authority of the district court.

In the Matter of M.C., No. SC-CV-16-12 (July 12, 2012)

The Court denies a petition for writ of habeas corpus, holding that 9 NNC 1310(A), which provides for a child's right to assistance of counsel at "all proceedings alleging the delinquency of a child" does not attach at a detention hearing that must be held within 24 hours of detention, on the basis that detention hearings address further detention, not the merits of the charges, to which young men and women are able to speak for themselves. 
  • A Detention Hearing and Preliminary Hearing May NOT be held in the same hearing, i.e. may not be consolidated, but may be held on the same day.
  • The ABBA requires that the Detention Hearing must be held first. 
  • Right to Counsel attaches at the Preliminary Hearing, which may be continued to obtain counsel. No right to counsel attaches at the Detention Hearing, as the merits are not addressed.
  • Juveniles in Delinquency Actions, having achieved puberty, are old enough under fundamental law to speak for themselves as young men and women on the matter of detention.

Baker v. Greyeyes, No. SC-CV-43-12 (August 24, 2012).

The Court grants a writ of habeas corpus filed after 6 months incarceration by an inmate serving time on multiple sentences in which it had not been specified how the sentences would run, holding that, when not stated in a judgment, multiple sentences are presumed to run concurrently.
  • Strict Adherence to Title 17: All provisions of Title 17, including circumstances under which incarceration may be sentenced as a last alternative, must be strictly adhered to. There is no discretion to deviate.
  • 17 NNC 221(A) mandates a presentence report because information needed by a sentencing court pursuant to Title 17 would be contained in such a report.
  • How multiple sentences are to run must be determined and conveyed to both the defendant and Department of Corrections at the time of sentencing, otherwise they are presumed to run concurrently.
  • Duty of Clarity: The duty of a court to be clear is expressed in the traditional law that those in authority must respectfully regulate with clarity, T’áadoo ałk’ehólóní K’é bee ííshjánígo.

NHA v. Johns, et al, No. SC-CV-18-10 (September 10, 2012). 

In this appeal of the Crownpoint District Court's denial of NHA's motion to dismiss on the basis of sovereign immunity, the Court vacates the denial.  Noting
 that the issue of NHA's immunity has returned time and again to the Court, first on the basis of NHA's codified plan of operations, subsequently on amendments to both NHA's plan of operations and the Sovereign Immunity Act, the Court finds that NHA had immunity at all times relevant to this action. In reaching its decision, the Court overrules a quartet of cases concerning NHA's immunity and reestablishes its 1987 opinion in NHA v. Dana as the controling case.
  • Inherent v. Acquired Immunity: Depending on circumstances, a Navajo Nation entity may have inherent sovereignty as a public body created to serve an essential publci and governmental purpose, such as NHA, or acquire immunity through an affirmative grant, such as CIT.
  • Full v. Partial Waivers of Immunity: Where immunity from monetary awards is expressly retained, express waivers for purposes of suit are to be read as waivers for expedited non-monetary and injunctive suits to serve the designated governmental purpose. In the case of NHA, this includes suits by tenants and other public for non-monetary and injunctive relief while safeguarding the public treasury.
  • Sovereign Immunity 4-Prong Test: A fourth prong is added to Dana's 3-prong test for full waivers of sovereign immunity, namely, consent, any conditional limitations, any waivers of those limitations, and whether the Council has made available funds to satisfy any judgments.
  • Larger Statutory Scheme: Where a provision is part of such a larger scheme, the whole of that scheme necessarily figures in the interpretation of that provision.
  • Petitions for Non-Monetary Immediate Relief by Tenants: Petitions for immediate relief, for example, when a tenant seeks immediate necessary relief for himself and his family, cannot be swiftly handled if the notice requirements of the Sovereign Immunity Act were intended to apply. Council action is requested for clarification.

James v. Window Rock Family CourtNo. SC-CV-06-12  (October 8, 2012).

The Court grants James' petition for writ of mandamus where James' adoption filing was not acted on by the family court for several months. The writ compels the timely processing of cases within statutory and rule-based timeframes and emphasizes the responsibilities of the Court Administrator. The Court also addressed the family court's erroneous interpretation of the adoption statute, which the family court interpreted as requiring a separate petition for termination of parental rights (TPRs) to be filed when an adoption is sought.  Clarifying that the Navajo Nation favors formal adoptions with TPRs only in cases of child abuse or neglect, the Court stated that the recent Alchíní bi Beehaz'áanii Act emphasizes that "customary adoptions" must be considered before all other options, including TPR as a last resort.  As the Act does not define customary adoptions, the Court provides the definition in this opinion. 
  • Mootness: A matter is not moot simply because of an absence of disharmony, since our courts are also used to formalize undisputed matters via a court order. Also, if a matter concerns the integrity of the judicial system and may recur, it is not moot.
  • Adjudicative and Administrative Responsibilities in the district courts must be clearly delineated; judges are responsible for adjudication; court administrators are responsible for timely and proper court performance.
  • Statutory and rule-based timeframes must be strictly complied with.
  • Adoption and Termination of Parental Rights: Natural parents may voluntary also seek TPR in an adoption proceeding, but may not be ordered to do so unless the adoption is pursued under the ABBA. Even then, TPR is the last alternative after other options have been considered, including customary adoption.
  • When the ABBA applies: The Alchíní bi Beehaz'áanii Act serves primarily to address circumstances of substantial disharmony or discord involving children, not intra-familial arrangements that are done in the spirit of k’é and hozho. Formal adoptions are not necessarily favored in non-ABBA cases.
  • Customary Adoption: With the ABBA, Council now emphasizes “customary adoptions” and all other options before TPR. Customary adoption is a clear delineation between the primary parental rights and duties that henceforth exists in the adoptive parent(s), and the secondary, clan-based responsibilities that remain with the natural parent(s). Such delineation may be stipulated in pre-trial settlement or peacemaking.

Meadows v. NNLC. Writ of Mandamus. No. SC-CV-64-11 (November 2, 2012)

The Court grants a petition for writ of mandamus, finding that the Labor Commission lacked authority to order the recusal of the panel and all previous members. The Court remands the matter for the Commission to hear the merits of the case.
  • Public Access to the NNLC: Even though the NNLC may promulgate rules and policies, Council has not granted the NNLC the ability to decide on its own authority that the panel, as a body, will not hear a duly filed NPEA claim. Naataaniis must uphold the people's trust by finding a solution to ensure access to justice. In any case, no rule or policy presently exists for the NNLC to recuse an entire panel from an NPEA matter on any basis.
  • Actual Bias Required: Conflict rules for judges requiring recusal upon an appearance of impropriety do NOT apply to NNLC panel members. For an administrative panel, a showing of actual bias is required.

Graven v. Morgan et al,  No. SC-CV-32-10 (November 9, 2012)

The Court affirms the Window Rock District Court's dismissal of plaintiff's contractual claims on different grounds of capacity and standing. 
  • Capacity to Sue, Entitlement to Relief: NRCP, Rule 9(a) places burden on plaintiff in a private action to demonstrate he/she is the proper party entitled to relief in order to invoke the court's jurisdiction. The ownership of the claim is of primary importance in considering both the capacity to sue and jurisdictional standing.
  • Corporate Standing: A business must be duly authorized to conduct business on the Nation before it can initiate any proceeding in our courts.
  • Corporate Personhood: A corporation is, in fact, a “person,” and must be a party to a suit in its own name, for its own claims. Its officers may not file on the corporation's behalf or vice versa.
  • Corporate Legal Representation: The corporation must be represented by an advocate licensed to practice law.
  • Subject matter Jurisdiction includes capacity and standing, which therefore can be raised at any time and even sua sponte.

Bahe. v. Platero, No. SC-CV-48-12 (December 20. 2012)

The Court affirms the Crownpoint Family Court's dismissal of plaintiff's child custody and support action concerning a Navajo family in order to allow the matter to be heard in the Bernalillo district court where a similar action had previously been filed. The Court emphasizes that inherent tribal sovereignty provides Navajo courts with exclusive jurisdiction over matters concerning internal relations between tribal members, and that the courts must be watchful that they do not unnecessarily concede concurrent jurisdiction in such matters. Nevertheless, 7 NNC 253a(E) enables our courts to allow the matter to be heard in another forum in the interest of substantial justice and in the spirit of comity.
  1. Jurisdiction over tribal children wherever they may reside, based on their status as members, is based on inherent sovereignty, codified at the Long-Arm Statute, 7 NNC §253a(F).
  2. Exclusive Jurisdiction over Members: Concurrent jurisdiction is not to be assumed when all parties in a private action are enrolled members of the Navajo Nation.
  3. Family Court Has Original, Exclusive Jurisdiction under 7 NNC §253, a statute of general intent, which can be overridden by a more specific jurisdictional provision in the Navajo Nation Code (e.g. where the ABBA provides for concurrent jurisdiction in cases where a state government agency might be the filing party).
  4. Deferral to Foreign Forum: “Exclusive jurisdiction” does not mean that the adjudicative power may never be relinquished or deferred, especially when foreign jurisdictions must frequently deal with one another in the spirit of comity. Where jurisdiction is obtained under the Long-Arm Statute, 7 N.N.C. § 253a(E) enables the family court to “stay or dismiss the action in whole or in part on any condition that may be just” upon a finding that, “in the interest of substantial justice, the action should be heard in another forum.” The spirit of mutual respect between courts is a defining characteristic of our relations with the federal and states courts and vice versa.
  5. Comity: When implementing the decisions of governments and leaders through comity, the implementation must support our paramount obligation to protect human beings, especially our children.
  6. ABBA Inapplicable to Private Actions: Any reliance on ABBA provisions for statutory authority in private child custody matters is incorrect.
  7. Appropriate Forums: Any forum that places the responsibility on the parents to work out parental responsibilities between themselves is consistent with a fundamental principle of our laws.