WASHINGTON – A half-million American Indian plaintiffs are appealing a federal judge’s recent decision to award them much less than they wanted in a long-running trust case.
U.S. District Judge James Robertson said in an Aug. 7 decision that the plaintiffs are entitled to $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion that they had sought. Robertson’s number was closer to government estimates in the 12-year suit, which claims the Indians were swindled out of billions of dollars in oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties overseen by the Interior Department since 1887.
“If this opinion was fair, I’d like to be out of court, but we certainly can’t let a decision like this stand,” said Elouise Cobell, the lead plaintiff in the case.
At issue was how much of the royalty money was withheld from the Indian plaintiffs over the years, and whether it was held in the U.S. treasury at a benefit to the government. Robertson said in his opinion that plaintiffs did not successfully argue that it was.
Because many of the records have been lost or destroyed, it has been up to the court to decide how to best estimate how much the individual Indians — many of whom are nearing the end of their lives — should be paid.
In their appeal scheduled to be filed Monday, the plaintiffs say that Robertson is too narrowly defining the obligations of the government in managing the Indian trust. The government trust should be treated the same as a private trust, which would have been held to stricter standards, the plaintiffs say.
Robertson issued an order last week allowing the plaintiffs to appeal. He had originally intended to begin a new phase of the trial that would determine how and to whom the government should award the money. But he said at an Aug. 28 status hearing that he would allow the plaintiffs to appeal now so the process would not be delayed any further.
In a January decision, Robertson said the Interior Department had “unreasonably delayed” its accounting of the money owed to landholders and that the task was ultimately impossible. He called the June trial to consider whether money was owed, and, if so, how much was owed.
The class-action suit deals with individual Indians’ lands and covers about 500,000 Indians and their heirs. Several tribes have sued separately, claiming mismanagement of their lands.
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