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Federal appeals court orders outspoken judge off Indian Trust case

[JURIST] The US DC Circuit Court of Appeals Tuesday directed that US District Judge Royce Lamberth [official profile], the outspoken jurist presiding over the 10-year old Indian Trust case [Cobell v. Norton litigation website] involving the alleged mismanagement of American Indian money [DOI Indian Trust Fund website] by the US Department of the Interior [official website], be removed from the proceeding. A three-judge panel agreed with US Department of Justice lawyers who had argued [JURIST report] in April that in a July 12, 2005 ruling [JURIST report] and a string of orders against the Interior Department Lamberth had compromised his status as an "impartial arbiter."

In the July ruling [PDF], Lamberth had, among other things, called the Department "a dinosaur - the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago, the last pathetic outpost of the indifference and Anglocentrism we thought we had left behind." The Court of Appeals wrote [PDF]:

From all of this evidence, “an objective observer is left with the overall impression,” Microsoft I, 56 F.3d at 1463, that the district court’s professed hostility to Interior has become “so extreme as to display clear inability to render fair judgment,” Liteky, 510 U.S. at 551. What distinguishes this case from one in which a judge has merely become “exceedingly ill disposed towards [a party which] has been shown to be . . . thoroughly reprehensible,” id. at 550-51, is, most certainly, not any redeeming aspect of Interior’s behavior as trustee. Rather, what distinguishes this case is the combination of the content of the July 12 opinion and the nature of the district court’s actions. Given these seemingly unique circumstances, and given that “justice must satisfy the appearance of justice,” Offutt v. United States, 348 U.S. 11, 14 (1954)—that is, reasonable observers must have confidence that judicial decisions flow from the impartial application of law to fact, not from a judge’s animosity toward a party—we conclude, reluctantly, that this is one of those rare cases in which reassignment is necessary.
As the Trust case moved through his courtroom, Lamberth at different times held two Interior secretaries in contempt and forced the department to protect Indian files by disconnecting its computers from the Internet [JURIST report]. The appeals court Tuesday instructed DC Circuit Chief Judge Thomas Hogan to appoint a successor. Named Indian Trust plaintiff Elousie Cobell said in a statement [text] that although the court had "reaffirmed the basic tenets of our case", she was "disappointed" it was being reassigned "because this will end the truly heroic efforts of a sincere and devoted jurist, the Honorable Royce C. Lamberth, to remedy the century of abuse of Indian people by the Department of Interior. That abuse continues to this day." NBC News has more.

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