Updated 7:26 p.m.
A federal judge in Washington on Monday evening approved a landmark $3.4 billion settlement in a Native American class action that stands to compensate hundreds of thousands of American Indians.
Senior Judge Thomas Hogan's approval of the deal, reached in late 2009 in Washington federal district court, caps more than 15 years of hostile litigation that featured numerous appeals, trials and failed negotiations. Hogan called the deal “truly historic.”
The case, named after lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, sought a historical accounting of trust accounts the government mismanaged for more than a century. Class members will receive a minimum payment of $1,000, Hogan said today at the end of a hearing that lasted more than seven hours.
“The judge’s finding that the settlement is fair and reasonable is a major milestone in the Administration’s effort to reach a resolution of litigation that has cast a cloud over the government’s relationship with American Indians,” Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli, who twice testified before Congress on the settlement, said in a prepared statement.
About a dozen people objected to the settlement today in court, arguing, among other things, that the plaintiffs’ lawyers demand for compensation--$224 million—was excessive. Justice Department attorneys said the bulk of the objection to the settlement was over fees. There were 92 objections in all. More than 1,000 people have opted out of the settlement.
The plaintiffs’ team, led by Washington solo practitioner Dennis Gingold and a group of Kilpatrick Townsend & Stockton lawyers, said they received an overall favorable response to the settlement during dozens of meetings in recent months in Indian Country. Kilpatrick chairman William Dorris, who participated in the case, said in court today he expected the settlement to provide a “beacon of hope” for American Indians.
At the end of the hearing, Hogan awarded $99 million in legal fees for the plaintiffs’ lawyers. The settlement set compensation between $50 million and $99.9 million. But the deal gave the judge the final say on a reasonable amount in accordance with controlling law.
The Justice Department had urged Hogan to award no more than $50 million in compensation. Gingold in court today asked Hogan to award more than $99.9 million. Cobell's lawyers argued in recent court papers that there was never a cap on fees. The attorneys argued for a higher amount in order to compensate for the outcome and complexity of the case.
The settlement includes $1.9 billion for a land consolidation program. The Interior Department has begun scheduling consultation meetings with tribal leaders to begin discussion of that part of the agreement.
“Judge Hogan’s decision is another milestone in empowerment and reconciliation for the American Indians,” Interior Secretary Ken Salazar said in a statement Monday evening. Salazar said the agreement “turns the page on an unfortunate chapter” in the department’s history.
President Barack Obama issued a statement Monday evening praising the Hogan's approval of the settlement.
"After fifteen years of litigation, today’s decision marks another important step forward in the relationship between the federal government and Indian Country," Obama said. "Resolving this dispute was a priority for my Administration, and we will engage in government-to-government consultations with tribal nations regarding the land consolidation component of the settlement to ensure that this moves ahead at an appropriate pace and in an appropriate manner."