Navajo chief hearing officer removed from post

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FLAGSTAFF, Ariz. (AP) — The Navajo Nation's chief hearing officer who disqualified a presidential candidate who failed to show he could speak fluent Navajo was fired Tuesday for not having a state bar license.

Richie Nez's appointment to the Office of Hearings and Appeals required him to get a license from Arizona, New Mexico or Utah within a year. He was given the option to resign or be terminated after it was discovered he had not met the requirement, said tribal spokesman Deswood Tome.

The issue was raised in the second presidential election case that Nez presided over this year challenging the qualifications of candidates. The Supreme Court rejected arguments that Nez was unqualified to rule in one case and seemingly shut the door to any appeal of Nez's other rulings.

The justices wrote earlier this month that Nez's appointment by President Ben Shelly presumably was proper and legal, or that he was serving as a de facto judge.

Nez told The Associated Press that he knew termination was a possibility and that he wasn't planning to appeal it. He said the work, which he did solo for a period of time, kept him from pursuing a state bar license.

The office signs up to 2,000 orders quarterly for child support payments and also takes on environment and grazing disputes, employee grievances and election cases, among other things.

"It's like this huge weight of responsibility has been lifted off my shoulder," he said. "I feel kind of giddy right now."

The most high-profile case of Nez's tenure was that of Chris Deschene, a Navajo presidential hopeful who was disqualified earlier this year for not showing that he could speak fluent Navajo — a tribal law requirement for candidates. Russell Begaye took Deschene's place and was the subject of the latest Supreme Court opinion that addressed Nez's qualifications.

The high court said this week that it will rule on an appeal in the case against Begaye without hearing oral arguments.

A date hasn't been set for the presidential contest. Begaye faces former tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. for the top elected post.

Shelly will work to fill the vacancy created by Nez's firing and will determine whether a second hearing officer meets the qualifications for the job, Tome said.

In a brief filed in the case against Begaye, Nez said the qualifications were conflicting and nonsensical. The requirement for a state bar license doesn't apply to Supreme Court justices or tribal district court judges. Nez said he believes the intent of the Navajo Nation Council in setting the requirement was to have law-trained hearing officers to take on cases that arise within the reservation boundaries.

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