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Senate committee puts bill to settle Indian trust lawsuit on hold until fall

[JURIST] The US Senate Indian Affairs Committee [official website] on Wednesday postponed consideration [press release] of the Indian Trust Reform Act [HR 4322 summary], legislation that would settle a decade-old class-action lawsuit [Cobell v. Norton litigation website] brought by Native Americans alleging the mismanagment of American Indian money [DOI Indian Trust Fund website] by the US Department of the Interior [official website]. Committee chairman Sen. John McCain (R-AZ) and vice chairman Sen. Byron Dorgan (D-ND) [official websites] proposed the legislation last year and the committee was supposed to complete markup of the bill Wednesday. Instead, McCain postponed markup until after the summer recess. Dorgan met with Interior Secretary Dirk Kempthorne and Attorney General Alberto Gonzales on Tuesday, and obtained promises from both secretaries to work with McCain and Dorgan through the recess "to produce legislation that all parties to the Cobell litigation can live with."

The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit ten years ago, accusing the government of mismanaging an Indian trust [advocacy website; JURIST news archive] in their names for a period of 120 years. Last month, plaintiffs in the lawsuit indicated they were considering settling for $8 billion [JURIST report], though no agreement has yet been reached. In a statement [text] Wednesday, lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell called the delay "unfortunate," saying "No one in Indian Country believes the Administration actually needs any more time to consider this resolution. Nor is there any reason to believe that the Administration is more serious now, given their record of resistance, irrespective of what they say. There is nothing new here in the Bush administration's attitude. The government has never negotiated in good faith, notwithstanding court orders or congressional directive." AP has more.

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