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In the absence of a prior case or statutory law to inform the parties of the legal standard, the court was required to hold a hearing to find the law before it holds a trial-type hearing where evidence was presented.
Appellant Ruth Smith, and appellees Joyce James, Darlene Ahownewa, and Lorna Quamahongnewa, were enrolled members of the Hopi Tribe from the Village of Hotevilla. At issue was a tract of farming land located within the Village, the parties disagreed on who had exclusive rights to use and occupy the land. Appellees requested that the Village resolve the dispute between them. Concurrently, they filed a petition for a preliminary injunction in the Hopi Tribal Court. The Village Board of Directors requested the tribal court to resolve the matter. Consequently, petitioners-appellees amended their petition to include a Quiet Title action. The trial court judge ordered a hearing on the issue of ownership and relinquishment of land by female members of Hotevilla who married non-Hopis and lived outside the reservation for an extended period. At trial, both parties presented evidence. At the hearing in the Village, the court took testimony concerning the custom and traditions of Hotevilla from witnesses selected by the parties. The trial court entered judgment in favor of the petitioners-appellees. Appellant’s counsel filed a notice of appeal with the Hopi Tribal Court. Appellees filed a motion to dismiss the appeal on procedural grounds.
Did the trial court err in holding a fact-finding hearing before ascertaining the applicable substantive law?
The court held that the trial court properly sought to incorporate customary law into its decision-making process by holding a hearing on village custom. However, the court could not uphold its decision. Since the trial court held the fact-finding hearing before conducting the hearing at the village to ascertain village practice which unfortunately may result in unfairness to one or both parties. The court reasoned that without knowing the legal standard, the parties cannot put forth evidence to adequately support their claims. Additionally, the court found that the trial court did not apply procedures appropriate to a hearing to find village customary law. The court held that the trial court should have allowed the village an opportunity to propose witnesses for the hearing on village customs, and should have allowed the parties an opportunity to introduce further questions about village customs after the initial testimony. Thus, the court remanded the case to the trial court to hold a new hearing to ascertain village practice concerning the resolution of disputes about the inheritance of farmland and to hold a new trial where parties may present evidence after the establishment of the legal standard. The court acknowledged that this judgment will delay a result for both parties. As such, the court allowed the parties to seek a settlement by seeking an arbitrator to whom the parties were willing to submit their situation. If the parties agreed to be bound by such a decision, they can seek certification of that decision from the trial court.