SHIPROCK — Vern Roy Lee, 52, of Fruitland, is officially a Navajo Nation presidential candidate.

After nearly 45 minutes of deliberations at the Shiprock Chapter House, the Navajo Nation Supreme Court rendered a decision legitimizing Lee's presidential aspirations shortly before noon Monday.

The hearing in Shiprock marked the first time in its history that the Navajo Supreme Court met in a Navajo chapter house.

The Navajo Election Administration struck Lee's name from the ballot in May after they found out he didn't reside on the Navajo reservation.

Lee, who is originally from Aneth, Utah, was represented by State Sen. Leonard Tsosie, D-Crownpoint.

In June, Marcela King, chief hearing officer of the Office of Hearings and Appeals upheld the election administration's decision, ruling that Lee's name could not be on the ballot because his home address was off the reservation. The Supreme Court's ruling Monday reverses that decision.

In delivering the court's decision, Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said the election residency law "is contrary to the fundamental rights of all Navajos to participate in their government, to run as a candidate and to vote who their leaders should be."

Navajo Department of Justice Attorney Regina Holyan, who argued on behalf of the Navajo Election Administration, disagreed with the court's conclusion.

"There is no conflict. I still believe that.


However, I think the concept of fundamental law is a concept that many people have their own interpretations on," she said.

At issue were two conflicting laws.

The Navajo Nation election code, established in 1990, states that a presidential and vice presidential candidate must have lived on the reservation for at least three years.

In contrast, the Diné Fundamental Laws of 2002, which were signed into law by former President Kelsey Begaye, do not contain a residency requirement. The laws incorporated Navajo traditional, customary, natural and common laws into the body of Navajo law.

"It's not just about me," Lee said Monday after the court announced its decision. "It's about the Nation. It's about the young people. If they decide to run (for office), we were the vehicles by which they can run."

Former Navajo Chairman and President Peter MacDonald, who was in the audience during the arguments, said he supported Lee's right to be on the ballot.

In 1989, the Navajo Nation restructured its government and created the office of the president. Before the office was created, the chairmanship was the highest elected office in the Navajo Nation.

"I think it's a good decision because anyone who votes, whether they live on or off the reservation, should have the right to run for an office and let the people decide who they should have as their leader," he said.

Residency was also an issue when MacDonald ran for office in 1986 because he lived in Flagstaff, Ariz. At the time, MacDonald successfully argued that he was entitled to run for the Nation's highest office because his umbilical cord was buried on the reservation. The custom of burying a Navajo's umbilical cord in their homeland essentially ties the person to the land.

Before giving her opening statement, Holyan was questioned by Chief Justice Yazzie.

During the questioning, Yazzie referred to a 2002 case involving Edward T. Begay, who was disqualified from the presidential race because he had a Gallup address. After Begay appealed his disqualification the Supreme Court ruled that fundamental law took precedence over Navajo election code.

"In the Begay case, (it was decided) Navajos have a right to chose their leaders," Yazzie said, adding that he did not see any reason why Lee's candidacy should be viewed differently.

"Since 2002, has the (Navajo) government issued new regulations and laws?" he asked Holyan.

"To my knowledge there hasn't been (any new laws)," she replied.

Council Delegate Wallace Charley of Shiprock, who attended the hearing, said the Navajo Nation Council would have to address the election code in light of the court's decision.

"Now it looks like we have to do something. The residency issue is becoming a problem for us, for our people," he said, adding that, in the past, efforts to amend the residency requirements had been voted down.

The residency issue has been discussed as recently as three weeks ago, said Council Delegate LoRenzo Bates of Upper Fruitland. He is also the Ethics and Rules Committee chair.

He said that the residency issue was discussed in a work session and that the committee is still trying to work out a bill that would strike a compromise between Navajo election code and fundamental Navajo laws.

"We're trying to make it to where (the new law) would cover both. That's where we are having difficulties," he said. "It needs to go both ways, but where do you draw the line?"

Erny Zah: