Navajo high court delays ruling in language case

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Chris Deschene By Jennifer Thomas Chris Deschene By Jennifer Thomas

TSE BONITO, N.M. (AP) -- Some voters on the Navajo Nation are making their picks early for the next tribal president as a decision looms on whether one candidate criticized on his ability to speak Navajo fluently will be on the Nov. 4 ballot.

The Navajo Nation Supreme Court said Monday that it will rule soon on a petition to keep Chris Deschene off the ballot. Attorneys for two men challenging Deschene's candidacy said election officials were wrong to disregard an order disqualifying Deschene, while election officials said they left the general election scheduled as is because Deschene had a right to appeal his disqualification.

Navajo Chief Justice Herb Yazzie noted time restraints and the complicated nature of the case that has people across the reservation talking about how language plays into their culture and tradition, and the Western society, in saying the justices would take time to deliberate before announcing a decision.

"The court wishes to let all of you know and, hopefully, the Navajo people will know that this matter is of utmost importance," Yazzie said.

Two of Deschene's opponents in the primary election, Dale Tsosie and Hank Whitethorne, filed grievances against him, saying he lied in his candidate application when he attested to speaking Navajo fluently. Deschene has said he is proficient in the language but declined to answer questions during a court hearing meant to determine his ability to speak the language fluently.

Monday's hearing in which the high court justices and attorneys switched between speaking Navajo and English wasn't about the fluency issue. It focused on whether election officials must enforce a tribal hearing officer's ruling to disqualify Deschene and move up the third-place finisher from the tribe's presidential primary.

The Navajo Board of Election Supervisors voted to keep the election on Nov. 4. But the board's attorney, Levon Henry, said he's fairly certain it will have to be rescheduled.

Meanwhile, supporters of both Deschene and his opponent, Joe Shirley Jr., were urging Navajos to cast ballots early.

"Vote," Deschene said following the hearing. "I'm still on the ballot. This is about letting the people decide."

Down the road at the campaign headquarters for Shirley in Window Rock, Arizona, Shawnevan Dale said voters are perplexed about the requirements for the office and what will become of their votes if the election is postponed.

"People are confused, wondering what's going on," he said. "Do they have to vote again? Will I get turned away, will my ballot get lost?"

Other factors that could play into the election scheduling are at play.

The Navajo Nation Council is meeting this week for its fall session in which lawmakers will consider emergency legislation to let Navajos decide whether candidates are fluent in the Navajo language through their votes. The bill sponsored by Danny Simpson would apply retroactively to candidates in the 2014 election, but it's unclear whether it would do any court decisions if approved. Navajo President Ben Shelly supports it, said his spokesman, Deswood Tome.

Deschene also appealed his disqualification Monday to the high court.

Navajo voter Beverly Gorman said she believes the courts will work through the challenges against Deschene in time for the Nov. 4 election.

"I have hope in all that," she said.

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