Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation visits Stanford Law School

The visit offered a glimpse of a different approach to justice, as the court heard arguments in a case involving a fatal traffic accident on a highway in Navajo territory. 

L.A. Cicero Navajo Supreme Court Justices

Navajo Supreme court members, from left, associate justice Louise G. Grant; chief justice Herb Yazzie and associate justice Eleanor Shirley answered questions from Stanford law students at a panel discussion held after the court met to hear a case that morning on campus.

When a bus and car collide on a highway that runs through the Navajo Nation in Arizona, who has jurisdiction over the resulting civil lawsuit?

The justices of the Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation heard oral arguments in that case in a courtroom at the Stanford Law School on Thursday, then held a discussion with law students. The visit provided insight into the third sovereign legal system in the United States, the other two being federal and state courts.

"There is a comparative benefit to see how the other court systems work," said Maggie McKinley, a third-year law student and co-president of the Native American Law Students Association. The student group sponsored the visit, along with the Law School.

The Navajo court system is the largest Indian court system in the United States and has been called the flagship of American tribal courts. It operates with two levels, the trial courts and the Supreme Court, and hears more than 75,000 cases a year. The justices don't often leave the Navajo Nation to conduct hearings.

The Navajo justice system aims to operate with a peacemaking style instead of the adversarial approach that is the norm in the American legal system. In practice, this means that "the judges need to get off the bench and get to know the people," Chief Justice Herb Yazzie said.

Although this didn't happen at Stanford, Yazzie said that the Navajo judges always introduce themselves and shake hands with the attorneys and the parties when they hear cases at home.

Yazzie said that he's starting to see lower-level courts in the U.S. justice system harness some of the practices of the tribal courts. Recently he was invited to Brooklyn to offer advice to a community court system there. Community court judges work in conjunction with doctors, social workers and others to come up with multidisciplinary approaches to problem resolution.

Who judges this highway?

The case heard at Stanford, EXC, Inc. v. Kayenta District Court, was about whether the Navajo Nation has jurisdiction to hear a claim regarding an accident that occurred on a highway in Navajo territory.

The accident occurred in 2004 and was a head-on collision between a tour bus, owned and operated by non-Navajo, and a car carrying a Navajo couple and their son. The husband was killed and the wife miscarried. The widow and family are seeking damages from the tour bus company.

Whether the Navajo court has jurisdiction to decide the case was brought into question. The Navajo Nation granted a right-of-way for the highway to the U.S. government, which in turn granted an easement to the state of Arizona to maintain the road.

Yazzie said that the case is of great public interest to the Navajo Nation and to those who may cross the Navajo Nation.

Jess McNally is an intern at the Stanford News Service.