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Navajo Nation Supreme Court ruling clears way for election to be held for president's post

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FLAGSTAFF, Arizona — The Navajo Nation Supreme Court has cleared the way for election officials to set a date for the presidential contest after rejecting a challenge against one of the candidates.

The decision released Wednesday means Russell Begaye will face former tribal President Joe Shirley Jr. for the top elected post. The high court wrote in a separate order that the special election must be held no later than Jan. 31 and without unnecessary delay.

The presidential race was separated from the Nov. 4 general election after Chris Deschene was disqualified in a language fluency case. Begaye replaced him but became the subject of a grievance alleging financial improprieties and questioning his loyalty to the tribe.

The tribe's Office of Hearings and Appeals rejected arguments from former presidential hopeful Myron McLaughlin that Begaye should be removed from the race because he was party to a federal lawsuit that sought to overturn a Navajo Supreme Court decision.

The high court justices did not address Begaye's qualifications on appeal. Instead, they ruled that McLaughlin's challenge was not timely and that the lower tribunal lacked jurisdiction to hear the case. The 10-day clock to challenge Begaye's candidacy started when the federal lawsuit was filed in June, not when Begaye took Deschene's place for the general election, the court said.

The court said postelection challenges outside the normal 10-day grievance period are allowed against candidates who have almost exclusive knowledge of the facts pertaining to their own qualifications and cited the Deschene case. That was not the situation with Begaye since the federal lawsuit was public information, the court said.

McLaughlin said it was upsetting that the Supreme Court decided against holding oral arguments in the case. He said he wasn't aware that he had an opportunity to challenge Begaye after he was certified as a candidate.

PHOTO: FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. A ruling by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, clears the way for election officials to set a date for the presidential contest. The high court upheld the dismissal of a challenge against Begaye, who will face Joe Shirley Jr. for the tribe's top elected post. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Alexa Rogals, File)
FILE - In this Nov. 4, 2014, file photo, Navajo Nation presidential candidate Russell Begaye, center, speaks with a group during the Navajo Nation elections outside of the Shiprock Chapter House in Shiprock, N.M. A ruling by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, clears the way for election officials to set a date for the presidential contest. The high court upheld the dismissal of a challenge against Begaye, who will face Joe Shirley Jr. for the tribe's top elected post. (AP Photo/The Daily Times, Alexa Rogals, File)

"It seems like there's a double-edged sword here," he said.

Begaye and Shirley's campaign manager, Patrick Sandoval, said they would urge election officials to schedule the presidential race as soon as possible. Begaye said further delays could create the impression that the tribal government is in chaos and unstable.

"We're excited about running," he said. "I know that we'll do really well in the election."

Sandoval said the Shirley campaign is happy now that it has a solid race.

"We're ready to turn the engine, put it in gear and move ahead," he said.

The presidential race might not be decided before other newly elected officials are sworn in Jan. 13, which could lead to temporary leadership in the executive branch.

Tribal elections director Edison Wauneka said his office would have to allow enough time for early and absentee voting before setting a date for the special election. He said he first must secure the $317,000 needed to conduct it.

"Right now it's too early to say," Wauneka said.

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PHOTO: FILE - In this May, 5, 2010, file photo, provided by the Joe Shirley Jr. Campaign, Navajo President Joe Shirley Jr. speaks with reporters in Window Rock, Ariz. A ruling by the Navajo Nation Supreme Court on Wednesday, Dec. 17, 2014, clears the way for election officials to set a date for the presidential contest. The high court upheld the dismissal of a challenge against Begaye, who will face Joe Shirley Jr. for the tribe's top elected post. (AP Photo/Joe Shirley Jr Campaign, George Hardeen, File)
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