Utah federal judges twice have ruled that the Navajo tribal court lacks the power to enforce its rulings on state entities. Tribal officials are challenging the latest decision.
The dispute began in 1999, when 15 former employees claimed they were illegally fired from the clinic, which is on state-owned land within the Navajo reservation.
A tribal judge in 2000 ordered the clinic to rehire the workers. In addition, he fined the clinic and the agency administering it, the San Juan Health Service District, $10,000 a day for each day his orders were not carried out.
The workers asked U.S. District Judge Dale Kimball to enforce the tribal court's decision, but he ruled that tribal governments "have not retained sovereign powers over the states."
The fired employees then took their case to the 10th Circuit in 2001. The appellate court sent the case back to the district court to decide the narrow issue of whether the tribal judge had jurisdiction over three of the workers in the lawsuit.
U.S. District Bruce Jenkins dismissed the lawsuit in 2005, ruling that county officials had immunity from lawsuits in the Navajo court. His decision led to a second appeal, which was heard by the 10th Circuit on Tuesday.
The lawyer for the former workers, Susan Rose, argued that Indian law is evolving, and old case law standards no longer apply. In recent years, Rose said, contracts with American Indian tribes have been done under executive agreements through the Bureau of Indian Affairs, which falls under federal law.
"The only law applying there is Navajo law," she said.
But Jesse Trentadue, an attorney for San Juan County, argued that if county and state governments fall under the jurisdictions of tribal courts, then they should have immunity from lawsuits.
Trentadue told the judges that if tribal courts are allowed to assert authority over state and local governments, the local governments "will cease to be able to govern."
Decisions from the appeals court judges typically take several months.
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