Madelyn Smith

Cobell v. Salazar (previously Cobell v. Kempthorne, Cobell v. Norton and Cobell v. Babbitt) is the most recent title of a class-action lawsuit brought by over 300,000 Native Americans against the Secretary of the Interior, the Secretary of the Treasury, and the Assistant Secretary of the Interior for Indian Affairs. The court battle began in 1996 as Cobell v. Babbitt. Beneficiaries of Individual Indian Money (IIM) trust accounts filed the class-action lawsuit, asserting that these officials had violated their fiduciary duties as trustees acting on behalf of the United States. Both former Secretaries of the Interior, Bruce Babbitt and Gail Norton were held in contempt of court
A large portion of the trust assets are earnings from a range of transactions in land allotted to individual Indians under the General Allotment Act of 1887, also known as the ‘Dawe’s Act.’ The government held in trust the allotments and any income from leases on the property, which may have potentially included lucrative leases for timber, mining, or grazing rights. The earnings were held in IIMs and paid out to the American Indian beneficiaries as annuities.
The plaintiffs alleged that the Department of the interior did not keep an accurate accounting of these accounts and that the beneficiaries had not and were not currently receiving what they were due. Cobell v. Salazar was not only filed to force the government to make an accurate accounting of the 500,000 mismanaged IIMs, but also to reform the record keeping system for the future. Estimates for the total amount of money owed to beneficiaries have gone as high as $100 billion, but the case settled at only $3.4 billion on July 24, 2009. The government also appropriated $5 billion to rehabilitate trust management systems.
The suit took over 13 years to settle and even after finding victory, it continued to experience adversity. The US Senate rejected the $3.4 billion settlement twice. The most recent rejection was when it was added to a much larger war-funding bill in July of 2010. The senate approved a $60 million bill funding President Obama’s troop surge in Afghanistan after stripping the Indian Trust Settlement attached to it. Finally on November 30, 2010 the United States House of Representatives passed legislation to fund the settlement, December 21, 2010, the United States District Court for the District of Columbia granted preliminary approval to the Settlement, and on December 8, 2010, President Obama signed legislation approving the Settlement and authorizing the $3.4 billon due to the beneficiaries.
The legislation also ratified the Crow-Montana Water Rights Compact, which outlines the tribe’s authority over the distribution, allocation and leasing of water rights as well as provides funding for the development of water resources for power and irrigation.
Passage of the Indian Trust Settlement is not the last hurdle that Cobell and the beneficiaries have to overcome. Payment of their legal fees has come into question in Congress and is yet to be settled.
On March 2, 2011, Congressmen Doc Hastings of Washington and Don Young of Alaska introduced legislation that would cap the fees in the class-action lawsuit settlement at $50 million. Lawyers of lead plaintiff Cobell agreed in a landmark settlement to a range of fees between $50 million and $99.9 million. Hastings and Young claim that the plaintiff’s attorneys agreed not to seek more than $99.9 million in fees. The plaintiff’s attorneys now claim that they should be awarded $223 million based on a 14.75% contingency fee arrangement consistent with controlling law. The attorneys’ fees will come out of the $1.5 billon common fund set aside in the Indian Trust Settlement agreement, which was created to compensate individual Indians who had IIM trust accounts with the Department of the Interior.
Rep. Doc Hastings argued, “Every dollar paid to attorneys is a dollar that comes out of the pockets of individual Indians in this settlement. This handful of lawyers is trying to take an obscene share of the money. This settlement should be about fair treatment of the 400,000 affected individuals in Indian Country, not lawyers looking to strike it rich.”

Webliography
  1. Indian Trust Settlement
  2. Indian Trust Settlement Video
  3. DOI Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians
  4. US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit Opinion: Cobell v. Salazar *
  5. Class Action Settlement Agreement@
  6. Modification of December 7, 2009 to Class Action Settlement Agreement @
  7. Second Modification of December 7, 2009 to Class Action Settlement Agreement@
  8. Cobell V. Salazar Case No. 1:96CV01285 (D.D.C.) Documents
  9. Fact Sheet for IIM Account Holders and Other Individual Indian Trust Beneficiaries
  10. Cobell v. Norton: Redressing a Century of Malfeasance
  11. Cobell Case: A History
  12. Dawes Act
  13. Maps of Indian Territory: the Dawes Act
  14. Legal Fee Negotiations
  15. Senate Balks in Appropriating the $3.4 Billion from the Settlement %
  16. House Passes Cobell v. Salazar Legislation
  17. Crow Tribe Discusses the Crow Rights Settlement Bill of 2010
  18. Some Crow Landowners Oppose Water Settlement Act
  19. US Senator Max Baucus and Elouise Cobell: A Team Effort
  20. Elouise Cobell Biography

* Access to 'Lexis Nexis' required to visit link
@ Google Doc.
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Images

Elouise Cobell Speaking at U.S. Department on the Interior: Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians
Elouise Cobell Speaking at U.S. Department on the Interior: Office of the Special Trustee for American Indians
Dirk Kempthorne: Former Secretary of the Interior
Dirk Kempthorne: Former Secretary of the Interior
Bruce Babbitt: Former Secretary of the Interior
Bruce Babbitt: Former Secretary of the Interior

Gale Norton: Former Secretary of the Interior
Gale Norton: Former Secretary of the Interior

Kenneth Salazar: Current Secretary of the Interior
Kenneth Salazar: Current Secretary of the Interior

Max Baucus: US Senator of Montana
Max Baucus: US Senator of Montana