Navajo Supreme Court Issues Opinion on Informal Methods of Deciding Divorce Cases

Here is the opinion in Manning v. Abeita.

The court’s summary:

In this appeal of a divorce action in which the husband objected to the judge using informal methods in deciding his divorce, the Court sets forth the premises under which informal methods are permissible under the Rules of Civil Procedure, and affirms in part, reverses in part, and remands on limited issues.

An excerpt from the opinion, which largely deals with when trial judges may dispense with the formal rules of civil procedure:

We have rule-based and traditional Diné dispute resolution methods in our courts. We encourage the use of traditional methods, especially in family matters. The family is the core of Navajo society. Davis v. Means, 7 Nav. R. 100, 103 (Nav. Sup. Ct. 1994). We have stated: “The eternal fire burning in the center of the hogan is testament that the family is central to Navajo culture and will remain so in perpetuity.” Id. However, in today’s society, a court session cannot be turned into a peacemaking session without warning and consent.

In this case, the trial judge dispensed with formal rules and convened a single Final Hearing, followed by a brief supplemental hearing, to collect information, seek stipulations, and dispose of all non-stipulated issues in regard to the parties’ divorce. Essentially, the judge failed to follow a properly structured process in the use of two very different methods of dispute resolution. In our dual-culture courts, our rules require there must be observed the two stages:
(1) the pretrial conference wherein settlement is facilitated and horizontal decision-making is encouraged using informal methods, including Diné traditional methods; and (2) the trial phase.

The Navajo Rules of Civil Procedure do not provide judges the authority to truncate proceedings in the manner shown in this case, especially when a matter involves pro se parties. Because the judge did not use efforts to distinguish the two stages, we find that this was his error, arising to an abuse of discretion. We hold that a court must maintain the distinction between pretrial and trial hearings. If courts maintain this distinction, then the use of traditional methods in our court system will work.

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