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Two mediators selected in Cobell trust fund suit
Tuesday, April 6, 2004

A retired federal judge who handled tribal cases and an attorney who has worked on several tribal disputes have been chosen as mediators in the Indian trust fund lawsuit.

Members of Congress who are pushing for resolution of the long-running case announced the selection of former judge Charles B. Renfrew and professional mediator John G. Bickerman yesterday. The lawmakers hailed the move as an important development.

"I am very pleased the parties have come together and agreed to have these two distinguished men help bring a reasonable end to this case," Sen. Ben Nighthorse Campbell (R-Colo.), chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, said in a statement.

"This is another hopeful step in a very complicated case in which hundreds of thousands of individual Indians await a final and just settlement," added Rep. Richard Pombo (R-Calif.), chairman of the House Resources Committee.

Renfrew and Bickerman were selected after several rounds of talks between the plaintiffs in the case and representatives of the Bush administration. Each party suggested five possible candidates, a list that included former president Jimmy Carter, a Democrat.

The field was narrowed down to eight choices, four from each side, who were then interviewed by the parties. An agreement on Renfrew and Bickerman, both of whom have worked with Republican and Democrat administrations, was reached last Friday.

The plaintiffs have welcomed the involvement of Congress in settling the lawsuit, which was filed seven years ago in June 1996. Last night in New Mexico, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell spoke to Navajo tribal members who are part of the case and told them in a letter of the need for mediators of "stature and integrity."

"While it is clear to us that Secretary Gale Norton and Attorney General John Ashcroft will not settle the case without pressure, perhaps Congressional involvement will provide the necessary element to achieve a fair settlement of the case," she said.

Renfrew, an attorney by training, served as a federal judge in California from 1972 to 1980. He was appointed by former president Richard Nixon, a Republican.

During his eight years on the bench, Renfrew handled a number of Indian law cases for tribes in northern California. He upheld the federal-tribal relationship in trust and water rights disputes.

Renfrew left the court for a short stint as deputy attorney general at the end the Carter administration. He went on to serve as a vice president for legal affairs for Chevron Oil and later, as its director. More recently, he's served as a special master in several cases, including a Microsoft anti-trust case.

Bickerman, an attorney, has worked with tribes on a number of occasions. As president of his own dispute resolution firm, he's mediated treaty, land, environmental and other cases.

One significant case involved several Michigan tribes and the state and federal governments. In the spring of 2000, his firm settled a long-running fishing rights case by allocating the catch among the tribes under an 1836 treaty.

Bickerman's ongoing cases includes work with the Tulalip Tribes of Washington, the Metlakatla Tribe of Alaska, the Hopi Tribe and the Navajo Nation. He's successfully mediated other cases where the Department of Interior was a named party.

Talks between the plaintiffs and the Bush administration began in January at the urging of members of Congress. The plaintiffs last May said they were interested in mediation. Secretary Norton finally responded last November.

The negotiations mark the sixth time the plaintiffs and the government have sought to resolve the case, which represents 500,000 individual Indians whose oil, gas, timber, grazing and other assets are managed by the federal government. All of the earlier attempts failed although an agreement with former Special Trustee Tom Slonaker was reached at the end of the Clinton administration, only to fall through when it was rejected by the Department of Justice.

A subsequent attempt during the Bush administration ended with the plaintiffs' attorneys particularly upset because they had shared their settlement model with the government. Deputy Interior Secretary J. Steven Griles would later ridicule the model in testimony to Congress and said he would not settle the case. But an outside trust expert called the proposal a significant step at a hearing before Campbell's committee last October.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Bickerman Dispute Resolution -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -

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