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Judge upholds ongoing trust relationship

The federal judge overseeing the Indian trust fund on Monday dismissed the Bush administration's attempt to "dodge" a full historical accounting owed to Indian beneficiaries.

In a 15-page decision, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth upheld the federal government's ongoing trust relationship with more than 300,000 account holders whose funds have been mismanaged for more than a century. Rejecting a motion for summary judgment that would have limited the accounting from 1984 to the present, he criticized it as evidence of "craven hypocrisy."

"Having failed to persuade Congress to pass legislation that would cut off plaintiffs' claims with respect to all transactions that occurred prior to October 1, 1984, defendants presently invite the court to make a ruling to the same effect," Lamberth wrote. "The court declines defendants' invitation."

The judge's move does little to disturb the Department of Interior's current plans to account for the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust. In court papers and other documents, officials say they will spend at least $335 million, over five years, to complete the proposed project.

But Deputy Secretary J. Steven Griles, the second-in-command at the Interior, told Congress in March that the summary judgment motion, if granted, could cut costs by at least $100 million.

"In the minds of many people in Indian Country," he told the House Interior appropriations subcommittee, "this issue needs to be resolved."

Federal law requires the Interior to account for "all funds" in the trust accounts. In February 2001, a unanimous D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals affirmed the right to an accounting.

The contours of the project, however, remain in the hands of the government. Last July, Secretary Gale Norton envisioned a 10-year, $2.4 billion accounting of the IIM trust, a plan that was roundly criticized by observers on all sides of the dispute as too costly.

In January, Norton came back with a revised proposal that imposed a number of limits. Although the IIM trust was created in 1887, the department only plans to look at transactions as far back as 1938.

Even then, only those beneficiaries whose accounts were deemed "open" as of 1994 -- the date of the American Indian Trust Reform Act -- will receive an accounting.

The summary judgment motion went further on the basis of two legal doctrines: statute of limitations and laches. On the first, the Bush administration argued that the plaintiffs failed to bring their case within the six-year cutoff imposed on claims against the government.

Lamberth rejected this contention because the Indian trust relationship has not been terminated. "[T]he court finds that defendants have neither repudiated the existence of the IIM trust nor repudiated plaintiffs' right to enjoy the benefits of the trust," he wrote.

On the laches claim, the government argued that the plaintiffs brought their case too late and that the delay unfairly prejudiced the government. Lamberth denied this defense by again referring to the ongoing trust relationship.

Interior spokesperson Dan DuBray did not return a request for comment on the court's decision.

Lamberth is set to start a trial May 1 that will address the accounting.

Get the Decision:
Memorandum and Order (March 28, 2003)

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust

Related Stories:
Court hears Norton's trust fund appeal (4/25)
Activity in Cobell case keeps everyone busy (4/23)
DOI concealed TAAMS problems from court (4/22)
On trust reform, BIA and OST battled till the end (4/22)
Norton gets another day in court (4/21)
Bush administration turns to Congress on trust (04/04)
Judge authorizes release of trust fund report (03/26)
Appropriators question historical accounting plan (03/13)
On accounting, Norton find her magic date (03/12)
Pressure stirs to settle trust fund lawsuit (02/27)
Spending bill keeps provisions affecting Cobell (02/14)
Trust programs see historic increase (2/4)
Standards guide reform effort (1/8)
What happened to all the land? (1/8)
Norton to fight IIM accounting (1/7)
Norton won't account for assets (1/6)
Lamberth slams claimed accounting (12/23)
Tribes opposing trust fund settlement bill (11/13)
Judge rejects Norton's 'absurd' accounting claim (09/23)
Funding battle underlies trust obligations (7/19)
Interior budget bill generates strong debate (7/17)
Opposition to trust fund bill mounts (7/15)
Norton delivers accounting plan (7/5)
House bill cuts trust fund accounting (6/28)

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