The end is near in one of the largest class actions against the United States in history. Cobell v. Norton (aka Cobell v. Kempthorne and Cobell v. Babbit) was brought 11 years ago by a class of American Indians seeking relief, in tens of millions of dollars, for the government’s failure to account for land seized from them in the late 19th century. (For a long, long history click here, here, and here.)
In a 165-page opinion issued today, U.S. District Judge James Robertson concluded that the Department of the Interior is incapable of performing an accurate accounting of the land trust fund. Robertson set a date about 30 days from now for a hearing to determine, once and for all, what relief the plaintiffs are entitled to.
Admittedly, we skimmed until we reached Robertson’s finale, which is worth the price of the 162 pages it takes to get there:
This case has been in this courthouse for over eleven years. A “long procession of [judges] has come in and gone out” during that time. The “suit has, in course of time, become so complicated” that “no two lawyers can talk about it for five minutes without coming to a total disagreement as to all the premises.” It has been on my docket for one year, during which time I have dismissed persons who were still “parties in [the suit] without knowing how or why,” resolved dozens of motions, enforced an attorneys’ fee award that pre-dated the invasion of Iraq, and studied the case enough to be among the few people “alive [who] know what it means.” “Innumerable children have been born into the cause,” and, as plaintiffs have reminded us on occasion, “innumerable old [plaintiffs] have died out of it.A bit further down, he goes on, “My conclusion that Interior is unable to perform an adequate accounting of the . . . trust does not mean that a just resolution of this dispute is hopeless. It does mean that a remedy must be found for the Department’s unrepaired, and irreparable, breach of its fiduciary duty over the last century. And it does mean that the time has come to bring this suit to a close.”