February 23, 2001
For Further Information Contact: NARF; Phillip Smith (202) 661-6350
MAJOR VICTORY FOR INDIAN TRUST BENEFICIARIES
WASHINGTON, DC – In a precedent-setting opinion, a federal appeals court affirmed today that the federal government has a legally-enforceable duty to properly manage and account for Indian trust assets. The unanimous ruling of the U.S. Court of Appeals, D.C. Circuit, represents a major court victory for over 300,000 individual Indians whose trust funds have been egregiously mismanaged by the federal government for over a century. According to John Echohawk, Executive Director of the Native American Rights Fund, the decision also represents "one of the strongest judicial affirmations of the United State's trust responsibility to Native Americans."
The historic ruling comes in the landmark class action lawsuit filed nearly five years ago by the Native American Rights Fund - Cobell v. Norton (formerly Cobell v. Babbitt). The suit alleges that the government breached its fiduciary duties to individual Indian trust beneficiaries, and seeks a full and accurate accounting of all funds held in trust by the government on behalf of individual Indians. Following a lengthy trial, U.S. District Court Judge Royce C. Lamberth ruled on December 21, 1999 that the government has indeed breached its duties, calling the mismanagement of Indian trust funds "fiscal and government irresponsibility in its purest form." In what he characterized as a "stunning victory" for the Indian plaintiffs, Judge Lamberth affirmed the rights of Indian trust beneficiaries to an accurate and complete accounting of their funds, and retained jurisdiction over the case for a period of at least five years to ensure that the government follows through with long-overdue trust fund management reform.
Today's unanimous opinion of the D.C. Circuit upholds Lamberth's ruling. Writing for the court, Judge David Sentelle held that Lambert's retention of jurisdiction in the case was well-justified given the "magnitude of government malfeasance" in its management of Indian trust funds, and stressed that "what little progress the government has made appears more due to the litigation than diligence in discharging its fiduciary obligations."
This opinion sets the stage for the next phase of the case - the accounting - which will involve a second trial before Judge Lamberth to determine accurate trust fund account balances. Plaintiffs have requested that the second trial commence by the end of the year.
The Native American Rights Fund is a non-profit organization that provides legal advice and representation to Indian tribes, individuals and organizations nationwide in the areas of: the preservation of tribal existence; the protection of tribal natural resources; the promotion of human rights; the accountability of governments to Native Americans; and the development of Indian law. NARF is headquartered in Boulder, Colorado with offices in Washington, DC and Anchorage, Alaska.