Accounting Ordered For Federal Trust Land Mismanagement

Eloise Cobell (Photo by Karen Kuehn)

A class-action suit regarding mismanagement of lands affecting 500,000 Native Americans recently got a boost, as the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit has ruled in the Cobell litigation that the federal government must provide an accounting for land royalties owed to individual plaintiffs.

The lawsuit was filed 13 years ago and claims compensation for Native Americans for land-related royalties from the profits of oil, gas, grazing, and timber – commodities that were taken from Tribal lands that the government has managed in trust for Tribal members since the 19th Century. In 2008, U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled that an accurate accounting by the Department of Interior was impossible, and awarded the group of plaintiffs $455 million, a fraction of the $47 billion+ being claimed in the lawsuit.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit disagreed with this result, and found that the lower court erred in eliminating the government accounting. Chief Judge David B. Sentelle said the decision essentially allowed the Interior Department "to throw up its hands and stop the accounting." "Without an accounting, it is impossible to know who is owed what," Sentelle wrote. "The best any trust beneficiary could hope for would be a government check in an arbitrary amount."

The D.C. Circuit panel acknowledged that the task is complicated and the Interior Department should focus on the "low-hanging fruit", dealing with clear cases where compensation is owed. "We must not allow the theoretically perfect to render impossible the achievable good," Sentelle wrote.