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Navajo Supreme Court Dismisses Challenge to Navajo-Hopi Compact December 11, 2007

Posted by rezjudicata in Navajo Supreme Court, Tribal Courts.
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Bennett v. Shirley, No. SC-CV-21-07 ( Nav. Sup. Ct. Nov. 29, 2007)

Issue(s): Navajo Law > Sovereign Immunity >> Injunctive Relief; Navajo Law > Civil Procedure >> Failure to State a Claim

The Navajo Sovereign Immunity Act waives the Nation’s sovereign immunity for claims seeking injunctive relief. Bennett sued the tribal President to enjoin enforcement of the “Navajo-Hopi Intergovernmental Compact”* based on violations of the Navajo Bill of Rights. Bennett filed the complaint after the Council approved the Compact, but before the President signed it. Does sovereign immunity bar the suit? If not, has Bennett failed to state a claim on which the court can grant relief?

The Navajo Supreme Court said no and yes. Shirley, the tribal President, argued that his decision to sign the Compact was a “policy decision.” Such decisions, he contended, are exempt from the Sovereign Immunity Act’s waiver. The Court, however, explained that, as a general matter, suits seeking injunctive relief are not barred by sovereign immunity. Moreover, the “policy decision” exception was a limited one. It applies solely to damages claims for which the Nation maintains liability insurance. Therefore, sovereign immunity was no barrier to Bennett’s suit.

Bennett complained that the Compact would violate his and others’ rights under the Navajo Bill of Rights. At the time Bennett filed suit, however, all the President had done was negotiate and send the Compact to the Council for approval. Technically, there was no enforceable Compact, yet. Bennett did not amend his complaint after the President signed and Department of the Interior approved the Compact. Bennett’s claimed violations therefore must stem from the negotiation and submission of the Compact. The Court ruled that these actions alone could not violate Bennett’s rights under Navajo law. Additionally, Bennett failed to allege specific facts that showed how the Compact would injure him. Therefore, the Court held that there was no claim for which it could grant relief.

*[Note on the Navajo-Hopi Intergovernmental Compact: The Compact resolved some of the issues in a long running and tragic dispute between the Navajo and Hopi Nations over land. Bennett and others had property rights in disputed territory, known as the “Bennett Freeze” due to a US government order that, until the Compact, prohibited occupants to make improvements on the land. The Compact purportedly allows easements across disputed land for access to religious sites. Bennett alleged that the easements might affect their property rights, though it was unclear whether any easements passed over the “Bennett Freeze.”]

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