FROM THE ARCHIVE

Norton's punishment on trust fund was light

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WEDNESDAY, NOVEMBER 20, 2002

Secretary of Interior Gale Norton got off easy.

For misleading a federal court about efforts to fix the broken trust fund, U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth held the Cabinet official in civil contempt, ordered her to pay attorney's fees and directed her to submit a plan to administer the accounts of 500,000 American Indians.

Other defendants in Lamberth's courtroom suffered harsher punishments. In a massive sexual harassment suit in the District of Columbia, he found several corrections officials and employees in criminal contempt for violating his court's orders.

On three of those occasions, he found the behavior so offensive that he ordered prison time for the contemnors. Sylvia Young, a District of Columbia corrections official, was sentenced to 180 days in jail for retaliating against a witness.

Like Norton, Sylvia Young challenged her citation. But a three-judge panel of the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in March 1997 affirmed the guilty conviction unanimously, citing the "willful" disregard of Lamberth's directives.

Two others involved in the case also were sentenced to six months in prison after Lamberth found them in criminal contempt for retaliation. Unlike Young, David Roach, a prison warden, and Bernard Braxton, a high-ranking official, only served one night after being released on their own recognizance.

Subsequently, the D.C. Circuit Court of Appeals in April 1997 affirmed Roach's conviction but overturned Braxton's. And on two other instances involving D.C. employees, the appeals judges said Lamberth went too far in imposing harsh penalties.

But by that time, Lamberth had already made his point known. "The court has to send a message to every employee of the Department of Corrections that this discrimination will stop, that this retaliation will stop," Lamberth as the case proceeded. "This court will stop it, and this court will not be deterred."

The message could have easily applied to the trust fund debacle. Three Clinton administration officials were held in contempt in February 1999 for violating court orders.

As the Bush administration entered the fray, Lamberth repeatedly warned Norton that she might suffer the same fate. "The Secretary has decided to contest everything and to throw down the gauntlet," he said last December after she ignored his plea to throw herself "on the mercy of the court."

Lamberth's seemingly extraordinary actions in the D.C. corrections case and the Cobell class action are tempered by at least 10 instances in which he declined to issue contempt citations despite arguable grounds to do so. And in the eight reported times he did impose sanctions, three were not appealed -- including the Clinton case -- and three survived a challenge to the D.C. Circuit.

Whether or not Norton's appeal will make it that far an open question. A notice filed by the Department of Justice on Monday night stated no grounds on which her contempt citation and the appointment of a court official are being challenged.

"Their appeal will probably be dismissed within short order," predicted Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney representing the Indian account holders.

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton - http://www.indiantrust.com
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice - http://www.usdoj.gov/civil/cases/cobell/index.htm
Indian Trust, Department of Interior - http://www.doi.gov/indiantrust
Trust Reform, NCAI - http://www.ncai.org/main/pages/
issues/other_issues/trust_reform.asp

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