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Appeals Court Removes Judge from Indian Trust Fund Case

The government is also reprimanded for what justices call `deplorable' money mismanagement.

July 12, 2006|Henry Weinstein | Times Staff Writer

A federal appeals court on Tuesday removed a judge in Washington from a long-running, contentious legal battle between American Indians and the Interior Department, concluding that the judge was prejudiced against the government. At the same time, the court blasted Interior officials for their "deplorable record" in managing trust money for Indians.

In its 3-0 ruling, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit noted that it had reversed U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth eight times in the case and that this record, combined with harsh language Lamberth had used to describe the Interior Department and its officials, warranted the "extraordinary" step of removing him from the case.

The action came in the case of the Indian Trust Fund, which was established more than a century ago to hold and distribute fees from oil, grazing, drilling and logging leases on 11 million acres of land west of the Mississippi River.

Government reports show that the trust fund has been plagued with problems since at least 1915. The fund is believed to generate about $500 million a year on behalf of about 500,000 individuals, though lost or mismanaged records have made a complete accounting difficult. Lawyers for the American Indians said government mismanagement had cost their clients billions of dollars.

In its decision Tuesday, the appeals court reversed a July 2005 decision by Lamberth ordering that correspondence from the Interior Department to beneficiaries of the disputed trusts include a disclaimer saying information from the government about the trust "may be unreliable." The judges agreed with government attorneys that Lamberth's order exceeded his authority.

Appellate Judge David S. Tatel, writing for the court, quoted some of Lamberth's rulings in the case, including this one from July 2005:

"For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilationist policy programs, and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians are merely the echoes of a horrible, bigoted government past that has been sanitized by the good deeds of more recent history, this case serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."

Government attorneys argued, "No reasonable observer would believe that a court that has viciously and baselessly denounced a Cabinet department and its leadership as villainous racists could properly oversee its activities and adjudicate further claims."

Lawyers for the American Indians opposed the motion to remove Lamberth, saying the judge's comments were justified.

But the appeals court said that Lamberth's views had become "so extreme as to display clear inability to render fair judgment," and that removal "is essential to preserve both the appearance and reality of fairness."

Nonetheless, Tatel emphasized that the "Interior's deplorable record deserves condemnation in the strongest terms. Words like 'ignominious' and 'incompetent' " -- used by Lamberth -- "and 'malfeasance' and 'recalcitrance' " -- used by the appeals court in earlier decisions -- "are fair and well-supported by the record."

Tatel reiterated a 2001 appeals court ruling that, "The federal government has failed time and again to discharge its fiduciary duties" to the American Indians, "resulting in a serious injustice that cries out for redress."

In Tuesday's ruling, he emphasized, "No remedy is in sight." He urged the two sides to make a "fresh start" toward resolving the case.

The plaintiffs have indicated a willingness to settle the case and have been working with Senate Indian Affairs Committee Chairman John McCain (R-Ariz.) to reach a resolution.

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