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Lamberth exchanges harsh words with Cobell critic

The federal judge overseeing the Indian trust fund has been cleared of bias in an unusually bitter war of words with a Washington, D.C., law professor.

In documents made public July 23, a panel of judges revealed they were dismissing a series of complaints lodged against U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth. He had been accused of inflicting a "reign of terror" on the federal government in his handling of the Cobell case.

But the D.C. Judiciary Council, a panel of Lamberth's peers, rejected the allegations in a short order dated July 9. The council upheld an earlier decision written by David B. Sentelle, an appeals court judge who said the complaint was without merit and didn't have a cause of action.

Richard J. Pierce Jr., a Georgetown Washington University professor, "failed to provide any specific evidence that would case a reasonable observer to doubt the subject judge's impartiality," Sentelle wrote on May 17. The professor's charges were also based on matters that were already decided by the courts, Sentelle said.

The decision came after Pierce filed a judicial misconduct complaint and published a law journal review article entitled "Judge Lamberth's Reign of Terror at the Department of the Interior." The complaint and the article accused Lamberth of "defamatory characterizations of numerous government employees," holding officials in contempt with "no basis in law or fact," threatening to hold others in contempt and ordering a computer shutdown "with no adequate basis in law or fact to support that extraordinary action."

The lengthy missive prompted Keith Harper, a Native American Rights Fund attorney handling the Cobell case for the plaintiffs, to challenge Pierce to debate the issue. Although Pierce agreed, the debate never happened.

In the meantime, Lamberth filed his own 37-page response, refuting all of the charges. He blasted Pierce for "patent falsehoods, half truths and statements taken out of context." "Simply put, the professor doesn't know what he is talking about and his allegations are entitled to no weight," Lamberth wrote on April 19.

Among other points, Lamberth said Pierce misstated key facts of the case, relied on anonymous "friends" within the government and failed to do "basic" research about legal precedent. "Seeking disciplinary action against a federal judge is a grave matter that must be taken seriously," Lamberth observed. "The facts supporting any charges should be well researched, thoroughly documented, and carefully considered -- especially when the charges are filed under a penalty of perjury by a member of the legal community."

"Professor Pierce had lodged charges against me without benefit of research, without supporting documentation, and apparently without considering the consequences of doing so under penalty of perjury," he continued.

In a June 1 letter objecting to Sentelle's dismissal, Pierce urged the Judicial Council to investigate his complaint. He suggested government lawyers could be called to testify, in private, about Lamberth's "threats."

"I could tell you so much more about the case," he wrote, quoting to an email he said was sent by a government employee. "But, like the unnamed sources in your paper, we are all in fear."

Lamberth has been handling the Cobell case since 1996. Along with his court officers, two of whom have been forced out, he has been the frequent criticism by both the Clinton and Bush administrations.

More recently, the Bush administration has tried to force Lamberth off certain aspects of the case. Attorneys for Interior Secretary Gale Norton also filed a motion to have the case taken out of the court system altogether, claiming to have made significant progress.

The plaintiffs and the Interior Department have been in mediation since the start of the year. The talks have not produced anything significant to date.

Relevant Documents:
Judicial Council Opinion | Judge Lamberth's Response | Abstract: 'Reign of Terror'

Relevant Links:
Indian Trust: Cobell v. Norton -
Cobell v. Norton, Department of Justice -
Indian Trust, Department of Interior -