Navajo Supreme Court meets at College of Law
By Loni Dugi
Walter Cronkite School of Journalism and Mass Communication
Students from the Sandra Day O'Connor College of Law and Arizona State University recently observed oral arguments from the Navajo Supreme Court, which hears cases at different universities each year to raise awareness about Native American court.
"What we've seen here is important for the general public to know, (that) we have a legitimate Navajo government with court systems," said Peterson Zah, special advisor on American Indian Affairs to ASU's President Michael Crow and former president of the Navajo Nation.
Chief Justice Herb Yazzie, Associate Justice Lorene Ferguson, and District Judge T.J. Holgate heard arguments at the College of Law on Ernest Tso v. Navajo Housing Authority.
Tso claimed he was illegally fired by the Navajo Housing Authority in 2004 due to two counts of alleged sexual harassment. He won his case in a lower court, which ordered the Authority to give Tso back pay.
The Authority claimed it had sovereign immunity as a federal agency and as a tribal entity, and could not be sued.
The court will issue its decision sometime in the future.
Jason Schwaede, a first-year law student, attended the hearing with his class, which had previously discussed Indian law and jurisdiction.
Schwaede said the hearing was an appropriate learning experience for law students, but said there are probably better ways to raise awareness for students not majoring in law.
"It's hard to listen to oral arguments without background knowledge and (legal) briefs," Schwaede said.
For instance, Schwaede said, most people don't understand when a case would be assigned to a tribal court rather than a federal, state or municipal court.
Tribal jurisdiction depends on where a crime is committed (on or off a reservation), who committed the crime (Indian or non-Indian), and what type of crime was committed, according Dr. Carol Lujan, an American Indian Studies professor at ASU.
Under the Major Crimes Act, the federal government assumes jurisdiction over cases involving crimes like murder, Lujan said.