After 11 years in the federal court system, the epic Indian trust case, Cobell v. Kempthorne, sped towards a conclusion in 2008.

The suit, brought in 1996 by Elouise Cobell on behalf of 500,000 fellow American Indians, alleged that for more than a century the Interior Department had been failing to make payments from a trust fund set up to manage revenues from Indian land. In August, Judge James Robertson of the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia pegged the government’s tab at only $455.6 million, less than 1 percent of the $58 billion Cobell had been seeking.

In a sense, the case’s narrative had turned into a tale of two judges. Before landing in Robertson’s courtroom, the suit had spent a decade plodding forward under the watch of Judge Royce Lamberth. Lamberth, now the court’s chief judge, had wanted Interior to produce a full account of the trust, to unearth exactly how much money it owed.
That proved impossible, and Lamberth’s evident disgust with the department, as well as his scathing opinions, convinced an appeals court panel that he couldn’t judge the case fairly. It removed him in 2006 and the case landed on Robertson, who did manage to start a bench trial in late 2007.

Robertson quashed the idea of a full accounting, instead instructing each side to calculate a figure for what the government owed. His August decision, which weighed each side’s method, came to two important conclusions. First, it was impossible to apply the ordinary trust laws. Second, after disparaging Cobell’s $58 billion figure as a product of “gold-plated” accounting, he accepted the government’s own estimate.

Of course, it’s still too early to write the book on this case. Cobell and her team from Kilpatrick Stockton, which has already plowed more than $22 million in legal fees and expenses into the suit, are appealing Robertson’s ruling. This time, though, they are asking to expedite the arguments.


Jordan Weissmann can be contacted at jordan.weissmann@incisivemedia.com.