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The decision by a three-judge panel of the U.S. Court of Appeals for the D.C. Circuit to remove Judge Royce Lamberth of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia from the Cobell v. Norton Indian-trust case July 11 was an unusually sharp rebuke in an unusually protracted piece of litigation. Since five Native Americans filed suit a decade ago against the government over its failure to account for land seized from Indians in the latter part of the 19th century, the Cobell litigation has spiraled into one of the largest and most litigious in the court’s history. While acknowledging that words such as “ignominious” and “incompetent” are “fair” characterizations of the Interior Department’s treatment of the Indian trusts, the panel found Lamberth had overstepped his bounds of objectivity, as witnessed by eight decisions the D.C. Circuit has overturned in the case. The appeals court ruling, however, will not affect Lamberth’s eligibility to eventually take over as chief judge for the District Court, a position governed by statute. The case is now before current Chief Judge Thomas Hogan for reassignment, yet resolution in the case is more likely to come from Congress than the judiciary. Keith Harper, an attorney for the plaintiffs with Kilpatrick Stockton, says he expects movement within “weeks not months” from the Senate and House on bills that would create a settlement for the Indians measured in billions of dollars.
Emma Schwartz can be contacted at [email protected].

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