Justice Dept. Seeks New Judge in Tribal Case

The Justice Department asks an appeals court to remove the Indian trust funds lawsuit from the judge who has handled the case since it began nine years ago. The agency filed its request after Judge Royce Lamberth made what the department says were gratuitous references to past abuse of Native Americans. The plaintiffs filed the lawsuit to resolve more than a century of federal mismanagement of Indian assets.

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MICHELE NORRIS, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Michele Norris.

ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

And I'm Robert Siegel.

There's a new twist in one of the biggest class-action suits ever filed against the federal government. The plaintiffs in the case are a group of American Indians who say the Interior Department owes Indian tribes more than a century's worth of unpaid royalties for land use. NPR's Ari Shapiro reports.

ARI SHAPIRO reporting:

The case of Cobell vs. Norton has been in the courts for almost a decade. For that entire time, Judge Royce Lamberth has overseen the back-and-forth between half a million American Indians and the federal government. Last month the judge sounded as though he'd had enough. In a July 12th opinion he lit into the federal government and the Interior Department specifically. He wrote, `For those harboring hope that the stories of murder, dispossession, forced marches, assimilation-as-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.'

That, said the Justice Department, went too far. In a filing with the DC Circuit Court of Appeals, the DOJ yesterday asked to have Judge Lamberth removed from the case. Department spokespeople would not speak on tape. Their filing, however, says Judge Lamberth's ruling, quote, "is unlike any other judicial opinion that we have ever seen." The DOJ calls Lamberth's language in the ruling gratuitous and says the judge is no longer fit to hear the case.

Representatives for the Indian tribes disagree. Elliott Levitas is one of the lawyers in the case. He says the judge was just reacting to the government's foot-dragging for the last nine years.

Mr. ELLIOTT LEVITAS (Lawyer): The problem is not what the judge is saying. The problem is the conduct of the people in the government who haven't done what they should have done.

SHAPIRO: The Indian tribes believe this latest twist is a government stalling tactic. They've said that they'll settle for roughly $27 billion from the government as payment for more than a hundred years of mismanaged land royalties. The Interior Department says that figure is far too high. Ari Shapiro, NPR News, Washington.

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