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Federal appeals court orders Interior Department to account in Indian Trust case

[JURIST] The US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit [official website] ruled [opinion, PDF] Friday that the US Department of the Interior (DOI) [official website] must provide an accounting in a 13-year class action lawsuit [plaintiffs' website; JURIST news archive] concerning the US government's alleged mismanagement of trust funds [DOI materials] for a group of some 500,000 American Indians. Both parties appealed two separate rulings from the US District Court for the District of Columbia [official website]. In January 2008, district judge James Robertson ruled [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] that the DOI "unreasonably delayed" the accounting of billions of dollars of American Indian money, holding that it was impossible for the DOI or for Congress to remedy the breach. In August 2008, Robertson ordered [opinion, PDF; JURIST report] the federal government to pay $455.6 million in restitution, despite plaintiffs' claims that they were owed $58 billion. The DC Circuit vacated both orders and remanded for further proceedings, holding, "that while the district court's analysis of duty and breach are generally correct, the court erred in freeing the Department of the Interior from its burden to make an accounting." Lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell said that Friday's ruling shows that the government "cannot simply throw up its hands and stop the accounting. She added, "[w]e will continue to seek justice, no matter how long that takes. Tens of thousands of beneficiaries have died while this case has been pending without ever receiving an accounting of their trust assets."

Congress established the Indian Trust in 1887 to hold proceeds from government-arranged leases of Indian lands. In an incendiary opinion [text, PDF] in 2005, district judge Royce Lamberth required the DOI to apologize to the plaintiffs [JURIST report] for its handling of the Trust, and to admit that information being provided to them regarding outstanding lost royalties on earnings from Indian land may be unreliable. In 2006, the DC Circuit removed Lamberth [JURIST report] from the case and reassigned it to Robertson. In March 2007, the plaintiffs rejected [JURIST report] a $7 billion settlement proposal from the US government.

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