Navajo high court disbars legislative attorney

By Felicia Fonseca
Window Rock, Arizona (AP) November 2010

The Navajo Nation’s high court has disbarred the top attorney for the tribe’s legislative branch for advising his clients to defy court orders.

Frank Seanez appeared before the two Supreme Court justices last week on an order to explain his conduct, which the justices said constituted gross misconduct and didn’t foster respect for Navajo leaders. The court ordered that Seanez immediately be removed from the Navajo Nation Bar Association, prohibiting him from practicing law on the reservation.

“The mischaracterization of our opinion, the issuance of opinions and memorandums that merely state what the law should be and not what the law is unacceptable, especially from government lawyers, especially from Navajo bar members,” said Chief Justice Herb Yazzie.

Seanez declined to comment following what Yazzie said was a rare disciplinary hearing. Normally, the bar association reviews complaints about its members, but the high court can step in when members interfere with the operation or proceedings of a tribal court.

Seanez asked justices to refrain from disciplining him, saying court opinions aren’t always easy to interpret and don’t come with clear instructions on how to implement orders but that he does his best.

“Sometimes perhaps I don’t get it right,” he said. “And when that occurs, I know the court will bring the matter forward and advise me when that is occurring.”

The justices weren’t convinced by his arguments and said no government lawyer should compete with court rulings. The court already had commanded Seanez to refrain from legally advising lawmakers or issuing opinions and memos if the advisement disclaims, disputes or defies any tribal court judgment.

“This is too important a matter, it is so fundamental to our system of government that we cannot allow this,” Yazzie said.

Seanez was clearing his desk out last week while Navajo lawmakers who he has advised for years were meeting in executive session following the Supreme Court decision. Seanez, a non-Navajo, said he started working for the tribe in 1991 and was employed in the tribe’s Department of Justice when Yazzie was the attorney general.

“He’s been one of the top lawyers in legislative counsel for the longest time,” said Tribal Council spokesman Alastair Bitsoi. “It’s very disappointing and disheartening to hear of his departure, but it’s what the court ordered and we cannot contest that.”

The justices pointed to two instances in which they said Seanez’s legal advice has countered tribal law, with which Seanez disagreed.

The first was in May when Seanez advised lawmakers that “it is unquestionable” that they have the authority to change a tribal law that outlines the structure of the government. The court previously ruled that only the Navajo people may amend that law.

Then in August, Seanez told the Tribal Council speaker that the high court exceeded its jurisdiction by restoring a government reform commission. The council abolished the quasi-independent commission in 2007 and re-established a similar body under the legislative branch.

The court ordered that the commission be restored and funded at its original level or be given enough money to fulfill its duties. Seanez said the high court does not have the authority to appropriate or reallocate funds for a nonexistent commission. Rather, the council would have to consider legislation to re-establish the commission and make the funding available for it to operate or to reimburse commissioners.