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Appeals court to hear Cobell appeal in May
Friday, March 13, 2009
Filed Under: Cobell

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 the trust.

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 settle.

"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 lawyers. 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 (D-North Dakota), the chairman of the Senate Indian Affairs Committee, nor Rep. Nick Rahall (D-West Virginia), the chairman of the House Natural Resources Committee, 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 v. Kempthorne (August 7, 2008)

Related Stories:
Cobell frustrated by Salazar's comments on case (3/12)
Salazar vows to resolve Cobell trust fund lawsuit (3/10)
Elouise Cobell: Obama must make trust a top priority (01/09)
Elouise Cobell: Indians still the invisible Americans (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 historical accounting (11/21)

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