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Trust
Supreme Court refuses Bush appeal of trust case


The U.S. Supreme Court on Monday rejected another attempt by the Bush administration to limit the federal government's trust responsibilities.

Without comment, the justices denied an appeal involving two Wyoming tribes whose trust assets have been mismanaged by the Interior Department. The Eastern Shoshone Tribe and the Northern Arapaho Tribe have won key rulings in a long-running case over oil, gas, sand and gravel resources on the Wind River Reservation.

The Bush administration sought to overturn those rulings, claiming that they would pave the way for billions of dollars in lawsuits by tribal governments and individual Indians. "Both the number and the potential dollar value of possible breach-of-trust claims against the United States are enormous," Department of Justice attorneys wrote in a court brief.

Three years ago, the administration made a similar argument in two tribal trust cases that went before the high court. The justices ruled for one tribe and went against another but, in both instances, they refused to limit the federal government's fiduciary obligations to Indian beneficiaries.

In the years following, tribes and individual Indians have won a series of rulings in the federal courts. In addition to the Wyoming tribes, the Osage Nation from Oklahoma and the Cobell plaintiffs have relied on the Supreme Court precedents to press an accounting of billions of dollars in trust funds.

The administration's appeal threatened these victories because it challenged a Congressional rider that gives Indian beneficiaries more time to file lawsuits. The provision, first placed in the Interior Department's appropriations bill in 1990, lifts the standard six-year statute of limitations for trust accounting cases.

The rider has been included in every appropriations bill since and it was the subject of a separate measure sponsored by former Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colorado). "It is about avoiding litigation which I think is in everyone's interest," Campbell said at a February 2002 hearing. The bill was signed into law by President Bush a month later.

Key members of Congress have continued to press the government and Indian Country to resolve trust management issues. Sen. John McCain (R-Arizona), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said he will give everyone "one good shot" this session to work out a potential solution.

The National Congress of American Indians and the Inter-Tribal Trust Monitoring Association have since started a workgroup to draft legislation to present to Congress. The Native American Rights Fund, on behalf of the Cobell plaintiffs, is involved in the talks.

The effort proceeds as the White House and the Interior Department have refused to yield on a key issue in the debate -- how far in history an accounting of trust funds should go. In the appeal to the Supreme Court, government attorneys sought a ruling to endorse their limited view of the costly project.

Meanwhile, Attorney General Alberto Gonzales has asked for a substantial increase in resources to fight tribal trust lawsuits. In testimony to Congress in March, he requested $7.4 million and 18 positions, a figure that doesn't include the amount being used to battle the Cobell case.

"The United States' potential exposure in these cases is more than $200 billion," Gonzales said. "Adequate resources are necessary to limit exposure and establish proper precedent for the United States."

In the Wind River case, the tribes have settled claims related to oil and gas mismanagement for $12 million and claims related to sand and gravel mismanagement for $2 million. Other parts of the case are still pending.

The tribes also filed an appeal to the Supreme Court that was rejected yesterday. They wanted a ruling to determine whether they are entitled to the best price for their sand and gravel assets. The lower court ruled they had no claim on this point.

DOJ Briefs:
DOJ Petition | DOJ Appendix | Reply | Response

Tribal Briefs:
Tribal Petition | Response

Docket Sheets:
US v. Shoshone Indian Tribe | Eastern Shoshone Tribe v. US

Other Documents:
Alberto Gonzales Testimony (March 1, 2005)

Lower Court Decision:
SHOSHONE INDIAN TRIBE OF THE WIND RIVER RESERVATION v. US (April 7, 2004)

Relevant Links:
Eastern Shoshone Tribe - http://www.easternshoshone.net
Northern Arapaho Tribe - http://www.northernarapaho.com
NCAI-NARF Supreme Court Project - http://doc.narf.org/sc/index.html