Campus & Community

Navajo top court in session at HLS

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Supreme court justices hear oral arguments in a tribal court case

The Ames Courtroom at Harvard Law School (HLS) is frequently home to mock trials as law students sharpen their skills. On April 12, however, it was the real thing setting up shop at Ames as the Supreme Court of the Navajo Nation heard arguments in an actual case.

The court, based in Window Rock, Ariz., frequently visits law schools to educate students and the general public about itself. Harvard last hosted the traveling court in 1999.

In her introduction, HLS Dean Elena Kagan noted that the Navajo Nation’s judicial system is the most active tribal system of its kind in the United States, managing nearly 100,000 cases each year.

“They’re doing interesting things,” said HLS professor Joseph Singer, an expert in American Indian Law, of the Navajo legal system. “They’re trying to blend modern views of law and modern kinds of governmental organization with traditional Navajo procedures and values.”

And they are succeeding: In 1999, the Honoring Nations Program at the Kennedy School of Government bestowed its highest honor on the Navajo Nation Judicial Branch for its “innovative legal system” providing a “unique integration of Navajo and Western law” that is “independent, fair, responsive, and consistent with the Nation’s culture and traditions.”

One of the reasons training in Navajo law is so important to the court is because it is in a period of law reform. Since the passage of the Judicial Reform Act in 1985, the court has been working to restore the use of traditional Navajo law in the Navajo Nation’s court systems.

The Navajo Nation is the second largest of more than 550 federally recognized Indian nations in the United States. It extends through Utah, Arizona, and New Mexico, covers more than 220,000 miles, and numbers over 300,000 people.