Appeals court upholds historic Cobell settlement

A federal appeals court today upheld a landmark $3.4 billion settlement concerning the Interior Department's mismanagement of American Indian trust accounts.

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit rejected two separate objections to the settlement, which arose from a class-action lawsuit originally filed in 1996.

The settlement in Cobell v. Salazar has already been approved by Congress, President Obama and a federal district court judge.

The agreement included $1.5 billion in compensation to settle charges that Interior mismanaged the trust assets of American Indians. It also provided $1.9 billion for the voluntary buyback and consolidation of fractionated lands.

Members of the class -- originally led by lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, who died last year -- are expected to receive an automatic check for $1,000 for historical accounting errors, and a formula will determine the amount of claims for natural resources accounting.


One of the appeals was prompted by an objection to the settlement made by one of the class members, Kimberly Craven, a long-term critic of the deal.

Craven's primary objection was that the settlement awarded some plaintiffs too much and some too little.

Writing for a unanimous three-judge panel, Judge Judith Rogers rejected Craven's claim that there was a violation of due process or that there was an "intra-class conflict" among the class members.

Rogers noted that Craven's objections failed in part because she did not take into account the fact that the settlement was not aimed at providing an accurate individualized accounting for each class member, not least because some records had been lost.

Parties had accepted that "any historical accounting that would result from continued litigation would likely be severely limited in scope," Rogers said.

As a result, "the district court reasonably concluded that the class settlement agreement offered a fair resolution of the plaintiff classes' claims," she added.

The second appeal, concerning objections made by Carol Good Bear, Charles Colombe and Mary Aurelia Johns, was rejected by a different three-judge panel, which declined to hear oral arguments and issued only a two-page judgment.

Dennis Gingold, an attorney for the class members, described both decisions as "very thoughtful and wise and fully supported by the extraordinary record."

The fact that a total of six judges had voted to uphold the ruling might, he said, deter the objectors from seeking Supreme Court review.

"Why would anyone want to deny people their money at this time?" he asked. "They have been waiting for 16 years."

Ted Frank, Craven's attorney, did not rule out seeking Supreme Court review, saying it would likely depend on whether he could encourage tribes to file briefs in support of his effort.

"We are disappointed," he said. "We think we were correct on the law."

Click here to read the ruling in the first appeal.

Click here to read the ruling in the second appeal.

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