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Cobell asks court to speed up appeal of $455.6M ruling
Wednesday, December 10, 2008
Filed Under: Cobell

The plaintiffs in the Cobell trust fund lawsuit asked a federal appeals court on Tuesday to speed up review of the long-running case.

The D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals already agreed to hear a challenge to a judge's decision to award $455.6 million to Indian beneficiaries whose trust assets are being mismanaged by the federal government. But oral arguments have not been scheduled and the plaintiffs want a quick resolution to prevent further harm.

"This case implicates matters of life and health because many beneficiaries depend entirely on their trust fund disbursements to purchase food for themselves and their families," the motion to expedite stated.

Nearly eight years ago, the D.C. Circuit held that the Interior and Treasury departments were in breach of trust to Indian beneficiaries. The court said hundreds and thousands of landowners are entitled to an accounting of their funds.

After some failed starts, the Bush administration approved a plan to spend an estimated $271 million to fulfill its fiduciary duties but Judge James Robertson in January ruled that a true accounting was "impossible" due to limits imposed on the project and budget restraints. He held an evidentiary hearing in June to determine how much money, if any, is owed to the plaintiffs.

In August, Robertson arrived at $455.6 million -- a figure far lower than the billions of dollars the plaintiffs proposed in court filings. The appeal to the D.C. Circuit will determine whether the amount was correct. The plaintiffs also want to resolve other legal issues that could affect the final dollar amount.

The D.C. Circuit also will be asked to overturn the judgment altogether. The Department of Justice filed its own appeal, claiming that Robertson lacked jurisdiction to award any type of money to account holders. The government contends dollar issues belong in the U.S. Court of Federal Claims.

Since the lawsuit was filed in June 1996, the D.C. Circuit has heard appeals of the case at least five times. Nearly every ruling was resolved in favor of the government, although the landmark accounting decision stands.

Though the Clinton administration was not receptive to the case, hostilities between the plaintiffs and the government grew during the Bush administration. Officials even went after Judge Royce Lamberth, the original judge on the case, resulting in his removal from the proceedings.

The latest appeal comes amid major change in Washington, D.C. With Barack Obama coming on board in January, a new leadership team at the Interior Department could change course in its handling of the case and of the trust relationship in general.

Keith Harper, a member of the Cherokee Nation of Oklahoma who has been on the case since 1996, was Obama's top Indian adviser during the presidential campaign. He is now part of Obama's transition team at Interior.

Court Filing:
Motion for Expedited Appeal and Argument (December 9, 2008)

Related Stories:
Appeal granted for Cobell historical accounting (11/21)
Voice for the Voiceless: Cobell lawsuit a warning (11/13)
Opinion: Scoundrels and scandals at Interior (10/09)
Jodi Rave: Corruption 'nothing new' at Interior (09/22)
Government appeals decision in Cobell case (9/19)
Cobell: Judge gives Interior a pass on trust duties (9/16)
Appeal stretches Cobell lawsuit into another year (9/16)
Appeal stretches Cobell lawsuit into another year (9/16)
Cobell seeks to resolve trust issues on appeal (09/09)
Cobell: Lawsuit more than a question of dollars (9/8)
Jodi Rave: Cobell set for appeal of $455.6M decision (9/8)
Judge certifies appeal of Cobell accounting decision (9/5)
Cobell headed to appeals court to resolve $455.6M (8/29)
Judge to hold first hearing after Cobell decision (8/28)
Howard Dean slams McCain for treatment of Cobell (8/26)
Native finance group supports appeal in Cobell case (8/20)
Off the Reservation: Cobell ruling a slap in the face (8/15)
Jodi Rave: Interior can't find owners of $73M (8/13)
Cobell to appeal $455.6M ruling 'as soon as possible' (8/13)
Jodi Rave: Cobell to appeal $455.6M decision (8/11)
Cobell final ruling of $455.6M disappoints (8/8)
Judge issues final ruling in Cobell trust case (8/7)
Judge to issue final ruling in Cobell case in August (06/26)
Judge to hear final arguments in landmark Cobell trial (06/25)

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