Navajo Nation Judicial Branch

Harmonization Project

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The Harmonization Project explores methods of conforming Navajo rules of court toward Diné bi beenahaz’áanii principles.   

The “Harmonization Project” is so named due to an acknowledgement that Diné culture and western-style dispute resolution methods rely often on deeply opposing principles.  In international law, the word “harmonization” means the process by which such opposing principles may be addressed and conformed in such a manner that there can be a smooth relationship between two sovereign states, especially in the important area of cross-border dispute resolution.

It is not commonly known that 75% of the world do not use the Anglo-style court system.  For example, in French and German courts, the judge plays an active part in asking questions, getting evidence, and helping the parties understand the issues and remedies.  In other European courts, people speak freely in a courtroom without formalities.  Such methods conform to the Diné value of access to justice.  Many legal scholars, today, advocate that the Anglo American court system learn from such methods. 

The project is modeled on a nine-year American Law Institute/European Institute for the Unification of Private Law  (ALI/UNIDROIT) effort to establish model principles and rules of civil procedure for use in international commercial and other litigation.  The ALI/UNIDROIT effort strived to harmonize differences in the legal procedures of common law (United States, Canada, United Kingdom and former British colonies) and civil law (Europe, Latin America, and parts of Africa and Asia) jurisdictions.  It was successful in emphasizing mutual principles while protecting the spirit of individual cultures. 

Geoffrey C. Hazard, Jr., Director Emeritus of ALI and Reporter in the ALI/UNIDROIT effort, is consultant in the Harmonization Project.

The ALI/UNIDROIT design was informal and participatory, comprising of the drafting of principles and rules and rigorous review of those principles and rules by a number of professional bodies.  The design of our project differs in several respects.  While the method of drafting and review is nearly identical, this project is more transparent, more accessible to the public, and adds the requirement of reports on various subjects for purposes of education, transparency and explanation. 

While the ALI/UNIDROIT effort addressed two separate and well-established legal systems grown out of distinct individual cultures, no distinct and culturally-based trial court system presently exists on the Navajo Nation. Peacemaking, the original dispute resolution method of the Diné people, is community-based, aimed solely at settlement, and is separate from the court system.  The Navajo Courts of Indian Offenses, established in 1892 and run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs, had applied the common law legal system of the United States without including Navajo values and processes.  The system continued to be used when the Navajo Tribal Courts were established in 1959 and continues to be used today.  A primary task of this project, therefore, is to define a distinct and culturally-based set of legal procedures for the Navajo Tribal Courts.  The goal is a culturally stable Diné court system.

There are constraints -- both legal and financial -- which need to be considered in changing the way our Navajo Courts "do law" that were not similarly faced by the ALI/UNIDROIT drafters.  Tribal courts receive substantial federal funding through PL93-638 self determination contracts under the Indian Self-Determination and Education Assistance Act and are, therefore, subject to limited federal oversight.  Our reforms are constrained by some federal laws, including ICRA.  There are comity concerns with state and federal courts in Arizona, New Mexico and Utah.  Our distinct and culturally-based legal procedures shall be harmonized accordingly.