Water districts challenge judge in Navajo settlement
SANTA FE, N.M. — Water districts in northern New Mexico sought to disqualify a state judge Tuesday and overturn a major settlement with the Navajo Nation in a simmering dispute about rights to water from the San Juan River.
A motion filed with the New Mexico state Court of Appeals seeks to disqualify James Wechsler as the presiding judge in the San Juan Basin water rights adjudication for failing to disclose prior legal work on behalf of Navajos.
The court challenge, now among related appeals awaiting a decision, comes from an alliance of more than 20 community water and irrigation districts and highlights Wechsler’s work in the 1970s for DNA Legal Services.
DNA Legal Services is an independent, nonprofit law firm that at times has been at odds with tribal government as it provides free legal advice to impoverished Navajo residents on matters of consumer fraud, housing, public benefits and domestic abuse.
In a legal motion, Attorney Victor Marshall described DNA in the 1970s as an “instrumentality” of the Navajo Nation that worked on issues of economic development and tribal sovereignty, citing excerpts from a 2002 history book.
Wechsler “had a duty to act with zeal and undivided loyalty as a champion for the interests of the Navajo Nation,” Marshall wrote. “That is the polar opposite of the duty of impartiality which is imposed on every judge.”
Stanley Pollack, a water rights attorney working on contract for the Navajo Nation, said Marshall is mischaracterizing Wechsler’s work and “trying to have a second bite of the apple.”
“I don’t think there’s any merit to the appeals, and hopefully the Court of Appeals will agree,” Pollack said Tuesday.
Congress approved the Navajo water rights settlement in 2009 but approval from the state did not come until 2013. Water districts in New Mexico’s San Juan River basin have opposed it, arguing the resources are not needed for a troubled Navajo irrigations system.
The settlement also allows for water to flow through 300 miles (482 kilometers) of a federally funded pipeline to communities in the eastern portion of the Navajo Nation, the Jicarilla Apache Nation and the city of Gallup.
The U.S. Bureau of Reclamation awarded a roughly $60 million contract last year for 30 miles (48 kilometers) of the pipeline from Twin Lakes to Naschitti. The entire project is scheduled to be complete in 2024, if enough funding is available, said agency spokesman Barry Longwell.
Wechsler retired last year from the Court of Appeals and continues to preside over decades-old water disputes in the San Juan River Basin. He could not be reached for comment.
Barry Massey, a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said that the judicial code of conduct prohibits judges from commenting on a pending case or a matter that might come before them.