Good News in the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund Case

Heartening news from the Individual Indian Money Trust Fund litigation listserv of today’s appellate decision:

Today’s ruling by the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit in the Indian Trust case makes clear that the government’s duty to account continues and that the government “cannot simply throw up its hands and stop the accounting,” Lead Plaintiff Ms. Elouise Cobell said.

She expressed appreciation for the court not freeing the government from its burden to render an accounting.

For hundreds of thousands of Indians, including children, the elderly, and the infirm who depend upon their trust funds for food, clothing, shelter, and health care, this ruling means that many more years will pass before they can hope to secure trust funds that the government has withheld unconscionably and in breach of trust duties that it has owed for generations.

The appellate court reversed the trial court’s $455.6 million award in restitution, stating that the district court may not relieve the government of an accounting duty as a matter of law.

Despite the fact that today’s decision may prolong the ultimate resolution of the case, Ms. Cobell affirmed the commitment of the plaintiffs to pursue the case:  “We will continue to seek justice, no matter how long that takes.  Tens of thousands of beneficiaries have died while this case has been pending without ever receiving an accounting of their trust assets.”

Accordingly, unless there is a fair settlement, plaintiffs will seek further review and request the appointment of a receiver to ensure that individual Indian trust beneficiaries finally receive the protection they are owed under the law.

The Alberto Gonzalez Justice Department had attempted to thwart justice in the now thirteen-year old case by removing Judge Royce Lambert eleven years into the case, after it became clear that he had been persuaded over the length of the suit of the Interior Department’s racism and malfeasance. Lambert’s replacement, Judge James Robertson, dutifully awarded hundreds of thousands of American Indians $477 million, when plaintiffs are seeking $47 billion, and Gonzalez himself had once estimated the liability at over $200 billion.

What is being worked out in this suit, and in the Tribal Trust Fund case still in its very early stages, is the culminating act in the hundreds years old conquest of Native America. However, today’s good news needn’t mean years more of litigation while the Bureau of Indian Affairs attempts once more to reconcile accounts that the firm of Arthur Anderson years ago judged to be unreconcilable. As Justice Blackmun himself, speaking for the majority, wrote in United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians,

Other decisions clearly establish that Congress may recognize its obligation to pay a moral debt not only by direct appropriation, but also by waiving an otherwise valid defense to a legal claim ….

It is long past time for the Obama administration, in simple recognition of a great injustice, to seek through congressional action to give Native Americans what they were promised and are owed, never mind pay the true debt.


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