The Cobell plaintiffs
and lawyers for President Barack Obama
will go to court on May 11 to argue a critical appeal in the long-running
Indian trust fund case.
Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet Nation
of Montana, and other Indian leaders filed the lawsuit in June 1996 in hopes of accounting
for billions of dollars in their trust funds.
After a slew of decisions, a federal judge last year said the plaintiffs
were underpaid $455.6 million.
The amount was far lower than the $46 billion that the plaintiffs said
was missing from the Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust.
They are asking the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals
to rule on
key issues that could increase the figure.
Obama, on the other hand, is continuing a cross-appeal filed by
the Bush administration.
The Department of Justice
contends the plaintiffs aren't entitled to any
money for the federal government's failure to account for
In testimony to Congress last month, Interior Secretary Ken Salazar
said he wanted to settle the suit. The comments drew a favorable
response from Cobell.
"We are happy that the Obama administration appears to be taking
a positive view toward resolving our case," Cobell said in a statement
at the time.
But more recent comments indicate a potential shift
in thinking in Washington. In an interview this week with the Associated
Press, Salazar said he might wait until
the D.C. Circuit issues a ruling in the case before trying to
"It may create the framework for us to move forward with some kind of final resolution of the litigation,"
Salazar said of the pending appeal.
Cobell fired back and called Salazar's statement "an insult to Indian people."
She said the administration must move now to settle rather than
wait for a decision, which could be many months away.
"Let's talk settlement, serious settlement," Cobell told
the AP. "I don't want words that say 'let's resolve it.'"
The plaintiffs reached a settlement in the closing months of
the Clinton adminsitration but the terms were rejected by government
Talks resumed during the Bush administration but government officials
walked away from the table and later asked Congress to extinguish
all types of trust mismanagement claims for $7 billion.
Since that last proposal, which was made by former Interior
secretary Dirk Kempthorne two years ago this month, Congress has not taken a serious
interest in trust reform or management issues.
Democratic leaders have focused on housing, health, education
and other matters.
With the 111th Congress underway, the outlook doesn't look any different.
Neither Sen. Byron Dorgan
Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs
, nor Rep. Nick Rahall
Virginia), the chairman of the House Natural Resources
, have identified trust as an issue on their agendas.
The D.C. Circuit appeal will be heard by Chief Judge
David B. Sentelle, Judge Douglas H. Ginsburg and Judge
A. Raymond Randolph. All three are very familiar with the case, having
heard appeals in the past.
D.C. Circuit Order:
Cobell v. Salazar
(March 13, 2009)
Lower Court Decision:Cobell
(August 7, 2008)
Related Stories:Cobell frustrated by Salazar's comments on case
(3/12) Salazar vows to resolve
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Cobell: Obama must make trust a top priority
(01/09)Elouise Cobell: Indians still the invisible
(12/19)Obama vows Salazar will
fulfill trust responsibilities
(12/18) Cobell seeks speedy appeal in long-running case
(12/10) Appeal granted for Cobell