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Bush administration calls for end to Cobell case
Friday, April 9, 2004

In one of his first major speeches, new Bureau of Indian Affairs head Dave Anderson told tribal leaders that the Cobell trust fund lawsuit has been a "good thing" for his beleaguered agency.

"A lot has happened because of Cobell," Anderson said at the National Congress of American Indians in February.

But in a brief filed with a federal appeals court this week, the Bush administration said that good thing must come to an end. Attorneys for Anderson and Interior Secretary Gale Norton, who are named defendants in the eight-year-old case, asked for the lawsuit to be removed from the court system altogether.

"This case has lost its moorings," the administration wrote on Tuesday.

The request came in a challenge to an order U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth issued last September. In a 270-page opinion, the judge said it was impossible to let the Interior Department manage the assets of an estimated 300,000 individual Indians without court oversight.

The department, he wrote, "has an unprecedented opportunity within its grasp: to take real steps now to redress some of the harm that has been inflicted against some of this nation's most impoverished citizens, and to take real measures that will improve the quality of their lives."

The administration's brief to the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals argues that Norton has been doing just that since she took office three years ago. Government attorneys cite the completion of historical accounting statements for more than $100 million per capita and judgment funds held in trust for individual Indians. The accounting is the central issue in the case.

But there is little mention of work done on behalf of hundreds of thousands of Indian landowners whose oil, gas, grazing and other royalty payments make up the bulk of the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. Since the early 1900s, these lands have generated at least $13 billion in revenues. None of it has been accounted.

What small progress has been made on the land-based accounting is attributed to Congress. The brief centers on last fall's bitter fight over a rider in the Interior appropriations act that delayed the massive project for at least a year pending further Congressional action.

Indian Country united in opposition to the measure, which was inserted over the objections of many members of Congress. The rider barely passed in the House by 11 votes in October.

The government's attorneys now say it is solid basis for an end to Judge Lamberth's -- or any other judge for that matter -- role in the management of the IIM trust. "Whatever function continuing district court jurisdiction might have been thought to serve in 1999 has vanished five years later," the brief declares.

Lamberth's handling of the case also plays a significant part of the administration's appeal. The brief charges that Lamberth and his officials -- two court masters who have been forced off the case amid controversy over their high-profile roles -- have taken too many over-reaching actions, including holding Norton and other Cabinet members in contempt, to ignore.

"In short, even if it were not otherwise clear that no basis for continuing jurisdiction exists, the experience of the past five years demonstrates that the public interest would not be served by a further extension of judicial oversight," the brief states.

That attitude drew criticism from Sen. Tom Daschle (D-S.D.), who represents about 40,000 account holders in South Dakota. "The department's suggestion that it has the Indian trust management problem in hand, thereby rendering the Cobell lawsuit moot, does not pass the laugh test," he said on Wednesday.

The brief isn't the first time the government has sought to do things on its own. The Clinton administration took the stance that Interior didn't have to provide an accounting of the trust at all, or if one was required, it would end at 1994, the date of the American Indian Trust Fund Management Reform Act. The administration also asked the appeals court to end Lamberth's jurisdiction.

Just a couple of weeks after Norton took office in February 2001, that line of defense was rejected by the D.C. Circuit in a unanimous decision. The 1994 law requires an accounting of "all funds, irrespective of when they were deposited," the court wrote.

In addition to Lamberth's orders on the accounting and trust reform, the Bush administration is challenging his decision to order a shutdown of the Interior's Internet connections. The systems were put back online by the D.C. Circuit pending resolution of the dispute.

The court battles continue as attempts to provide a resolution to the case advance. This week, the Cobell plaintiffs praised the selection of two mediators. Retired federal judge Charles B. Renfrew and professional mediator John G. Bickerman were announced on Monday.

Relevant Documents:
Appellate Court Briefs in Cobell v. Norton (Department of Justice)

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

Related Stories:
Cobell trust fund suit mediators announced (4/6)
Cobell mediator Renfrew has oil tanker named after him (4/6)
Appeals court issues stay of DOI shutdown order (03/25)
Neal McCaleb criticizes Tex Hall and Judge Lamberth (03/19)
DOI's Internet connection shut down for third time (03/16)
Lamberth defends special master against attack (03/16)
Computer shutdown applies to all DOI systems (03/16)
BIA shows off information technology facility (03/02)
Anderson praises Cobell suit in NCAI speech (2/25)
Cobell continues fight for accounting of billions (12/19)
Lamberth orders DOI to turn over IT reports (12/12)
DOI fares poorly on computer security report card (12/11)
Trust fund rider faces test in courtroom (11/24)
Trust reform a big issue at NCAI conference (11/21)
Tribes still frustrated on trust reform (11/20)
Norton finally responds to trust settlement (11/20)
Bush officials blasted by tribal leaders (11/19)
Cobell plaintiffs disputing trust fund rider (11/17)
Appeals court puts trust fund ruling on hold (11/14)
Norton using rider to seek stay of Cobell case (11/12)
Editorial: White House actions on trust 'contemptible' (11/7)
Quick fixes won't solve trust fund problems (11/5)
President Bush 'on the hook' for trust fund delays (11/5)
Norton testimony sought by plaintiffs in trust case (11/5)
Tribal company's work on trust accounting on hold (11/5)
Daschle criticizes 'shameful' rider in DOI budget bill (11/04)
Norton welcomes time-out in Cobell trust fund case (11/4)
Norton appealing Indian trust fund ruling (11/3)
Norton says White House behind trust fund rider (11/3)
House approves trust fund rider in DOI bill (10/31)
Campbell pushes action on trust fund suit (10/30)
Battle brews in House over DOI budget bill (10/30)
Cobell rallies support for trust fund case (10/28)
DOI bill halts Indian trust fund case (10/24)
Bill targets Indian trust fund suit (10/22)
House chairman supports self-governance rider (10/14)
Self-governance tribes fear impact of reorganization (10/09)
Lamberth lays out future of Indian trust reform (09/26)
Court report finds undervaluation of Navajo lands (08/21)
Administration eyes consolidation of Indian appraisals (08/15)
Tally for private attorney fees in Cobell case rises (07/24)
Congress hacks Bush's accounting funds (7/16)
Swimmer partly right on trust fund rider (7/14)
Bush official balks at large settlement for Cobell (7/10)
On trust, lawmakers take Bush officials at face value (06/25)
Private attorneys reap benefits on Cobell case (06/24)
Norton offered settlement funds for IIM trust (6/20)
Lamberth criticizes interference with trust fund case (05/22)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)

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