The extension for congressional authorization of the $3.4 billion settlement in a long-running Indian trust suit in Washington was pushed back today to January 2011, giving Congress more time to examine the deal.
Senior Judge Thomas Hogan of Washington federal district court expressed concern today that Congress has not approved the deal, first announced in December 2009. Hogan met this morning with Justice and Interior department lawyers and attorneys for lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell.
Cobell’s suit, filed in 1996 in the U.S. District Court for the District of Columbia, seeks a historical accounting of billions of dollars held in trust for the use of Indian land for oil, timber and minerals. The terms of the agreement call for $1.5 billion in payment to account holders. Nearly $2 billion would be dedicated to a land consolidation program.
The deadline for congressional authorization has been extended numerous times. Hogan today, repeating earlier public statements, urged Congress to act on the settlement, which he said was negotiated at arm’s length.
A team of Kilpatrick Stockton attorneys, working with D.C. solo practitioner Dennis Gingold, represent Cobell. Deputy Secretary David Hayes of the Interior Department attended today’s session with Interior Solicitor Hilary Tompkins. The plaintiffs’ lawyers, including Gingold and Kilpatrick Stockton partner Keith Harper, met with the government attorneys in Hogan’s chambers for about 30 minutes before holding a public court session.
Hogan said the merits of the case are clear: the government is liable. If the settlement falls through, the judge said the parties would return to lengthy, costly litigation. Hogan said he is hopeful Congress will take up the settlement during the lame-duck session. Hogan wants the lawyers to return to court Jan. 7, the deadline he set for Congress to approve the deal.
The latest deadline, Hogan said, is “perhaps one last chance” for Congress to approve the terms of the settlement before the Cobell case returns to litigation.