UPDATE: The deadline has been extended until Feb. 28, writes BLT. No other conditions of the settlement changed according to Cobell lawyer Keith Harper, who signed the agreement with the Justice Department Tuesday afternoon.
Lawyers representing Elouise Cobell, the main plaintiff in the long-running Indian trust litigation, are in discussions with the government about possibly extending Thursday’s deadline to finalize a settlement agreement that required action from Congress.
The settlement reached earlier this month required Congress to pass legislation authorizing payment to the plaintiffs by Dec. 31. Congress did not take action before adjourning for its holiday break.
Keith Harper, one of the lawyers for Cobell, confirmed ongoing discussions to the Blog of Legal Times.
The settlement of the case, Cobell v. Salazar, was announced at a press conference at the Department of the Interior on Dec. 8, and was discussed before the Senate Indian Affairs Committee on Dec. 17.
“[T]he litigation has drained federal resources from Indian Country, and has created a poisonous atmosphere for the administration of the federal government’s trust responsibilities in Indian Country,” said Associate Attorney General Thomas Perrelli in testimony before the Senate Indian Affairs panel.
“Throughout our discussions with the plaintiffs, we have been guided by two principles,” said Perrelli. “First, we wanted true peace for the parties. We wanted to turn the page on history. The resolution of the accounting and trust administration pieces of this litigation will do that.”
Cobell v. Salazar was one of the largest class actions ever filed against the U.S. government. The lawsuit, originally filed in 1996, was brought by Cobell on behalf of more than 300,000 Native Americans holding individual Indian money accounts.
If approved and funded by Congress, the $3.4 billion settlement agreement includes $1.4 billion that would be distributed to class members to compensate them for their historic accounting claims and to resolve potential claims that prior U.S. officials mismanaged the administration of trust assets, according to the Justice Department.
The other $2 billion would go to establish a land consolidation program to provide individual Indians with an opportunity to obtain cash payments for divided land interests and free up the land for the benefit of tribal communities. The allegations of mismanagement went all the way back to 1887.
“What we’ve long thought was needed was leadership on the other side,” Harper told Main Justice earlier this month. “For people to recognize that we could litigate forever on both sides, but it’s far better to resolve the case and try to build a foundation upon which there can a more healthy and trusting relationship.”
“You have a president now who has committed to that and made very clear that this was one of his priorities, you have a secretary of the Interior who has made it one of his priorities,” said Harper.
“Trying to judge whether something will get through Congress is challenging,” said Harper earlier this month. “Would I be shocked if it didn’t? No, but that’s just the way this town works, but it’s just hard to predict with any precision, but I’m optimistic.”
View video from the Dec. 8 press conference below: