Navajo Nation now requires law degree for top chief justice

Former Navajo Nation Supreme Court Chief Justice Herb Yazzie holds a law degree and retired in May 2015. The current acting chief justice, Allen Sloan, also holds a law degree. Photo from Stanford University

The Chief Justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court must hold a law degree under a bill that was signed into law by President Russell Begaye.

The change will help the tribe come into compliance with the Tribal Law and Order Act of 2010 and the Violence Against Women Act of 2013. Both laws require a presiding judge with "sufficient legal training" and someone who is licensed to practice law by "any jurisdiction" in the United States.

"This new standard ensures that our Chief Justice will have been exposed to various fields of law in law school. This new higher standard will help move our Nation forward to obtain more self-determination over our own justice system,” Delegate Dwight Witherspoon, who sponsored Resolution CO-42-15, said in a press release. “At some point, the Navajo Nation needs to have authority over all judicial matters, including the seven major crimes that are prosecuted federally on Indian lands.”

The Tribal Law and Order Act allows tribes to impose longer sentences on Indian criminal defendants. The Violence Against Women Act recognizes tribal jurisdiction over certain non-Indians who commit certain domestic violence offenses.

“In order to position the Nation to try non-Indians in our courts, our judges, especially at the Supreme Court level, need to have a Juris Doctor degree,” President Begaye said in a press release.

The acting chief justice of the Navajo Nation Supreme Court is Allen Sloan, who holds a law degree. The prior chief justice, Herb Yazzie, who retired in May, also holds a law degree.

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Law degree required for Navajo chief justice (The Farmington Daily-Times 11/4)

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