FROM THE ARCHIVE

Norton cleared of contempt on trust fund

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FRIDAY, JULY 18, 2003

A unanimous D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals today threw out contempt charges against Secretary of Interior Gale Norton and former Indian affairs aide Neal McCaleb.

Siding with the Bush administration, the three-judge panel said U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth went too far in holding the two officials responsible for the Indian trust fund fiasco. The court held that both could not be held liable for actions of their predecessors because the punishment was "criminal" in nature.

"Because Secretary Norton cannot be held criminally liable for contempt based on the conduct of her predecessor in office, her contempt conviction cannot stand; she simply cannot be held criminally to account for any delay that occurred prior to her assuming office," Judge Douglas Ginsburg, a Reagan appointee, wrote in the 31-page opinion.

The panel also held that the reappointment of Joseph S. Kieffer III as a special master-monitor in the case was unwarranted because the government objected. Kieffer wrote several highly critical reports of the Department of Interior.

Despite the reversal, the court disagreed with the administration on some important fronts. One was that Lamberth lacks jurisdiction to review the government's trust reform efforts.

Second, the court said it was "premature" for the government to claim Lamberth has overstepped his boundaries in the case. The department objected to his recent Trial 1.5, which concluded July 8 and addressed historical accounting and other reform issues.

The court vacated the five contempt charges that were brought against Norton and McCaleb, who retired last December, citing pressure from the litigation. The court also said the government should not have to pay court fees to the plaintiffs for the proceedings.

Lamberth issued his original decision September 17.

Get the Decision:
Cobell v. Norton (July 18, 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

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