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Navajo Supreme Court Vacates District Court’s Jury Costs and Gag Orders November 15, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in Navajo Supreme Court, Tribal Courts.
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Johnson v. Tuba City District Court, SC-CV-12-07 (Nav. Sup. Ct. November 7, 2007)

Issue(s): Fundamental Rights > Right to Jury Trial; Civil Procedure > Abuse of Discretion; Remedies > Extraordinary Writs

Petitioner Johnson sued Yellowman(real party in interest) in Tuba City District Court. At a pretrial conference, the court told Johnson that she must voluntarily dismiss some claims in her complaint because the court believed that the claims were barred by res judicata. When she did not, the court dismissed those claims and imposed sanctions. Johnson also requested a jury trial but the court required a $1500 prepayment in order to hold a jury trial. Finally, the court issued an oral gag order preventing either party from discussing the case. Johnson appealed to the Navajo Supreme Court seeking writs of mandamus and superintending control concerning the court’s orders.

The Supreme Court first explained that writs are extraordinary remedies that will only be granted when there is no plain, speedy, or adequate remedy at law. After that threshhold inquiry, writs of mandamus are only appropriate when the court has failed to act when it has a non-discretionary duty to do so. Writs of superintending control will issue only when the court abuses its discretion in an egregious fashion.

In this context, a remedy is inadequate when a litigant may suffer damage that is irreversible on appeal. Consequently, the Court found that there was an adequate remedy for the district court’s interpretation of res judicata and its order of sanctions because those orders could be reversed on appeal. To the contrary, the Court found no adequate appellate remedy for the potential denial of the right to a jury trial or the gag order.

Under Navajo law, in the absence of a statute prohibiting gag orders, the decision to issue a gag order is within the discretion of the district court. Nevertheless, the district court must carefully consider such a restriction and justify it with clear reasons. This is because it is Navajo policy to maintain the openness of court proceedings so the “Navajo people may know what its courts are doing.” Slip op., at 7. Additionally, the gag restricts the parties’ ability to freely discuss their case. The Court found that the district court abused its discretion because it gave no reasons for the gag order and granted the writ of superintending control vacating the order.

Navajo law does allow district courts to require prepayment of jury costs from the party demanding trial in civil cases. 7 N.N.C. § 658. However, district courts may not require prepayment if doing so would “deny that person the right to a trial by jury.” Id. The Court held that requiring prepayment was not a per se violation of the right to a jury trial. But, because the right to a jury trial if fundamental, prepayment is only appropriate if the party is able to pay. As a result, the district court must explain the amount of the prepayment and allow the party to argue that it cannot afford prepayment. The district court here did neither. Therefore, the Court granted the writ of mandamus on this point.

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