Indians ask for contempt reinstatement

Interior Department

Lawyers representing thousands of American Indians asked an appeals court to reinstate a contempt of court reprimand of Interior Department Secretary Gale Norton.

As the latest action in the seven-year court saga concerning the management of Indian trust funds, the plaintiffs' attorneys asked the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia to reinstate the original ruling of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who had held Norton and her top Indian affairs aide, Neal McCaleb, in civil contempt. The September 2002 decision was reversed in July by a special three-judge panel.

At that time, the group ruled that Norton should not be reprimanded for actions that occurred during the tenure of her predecessor. The panel also declared that the sanction was a criminal proceeding, not civil.

Lawyers for the Indians disagreed, saying, "The panel's decision misconstrues the true nature and purpose of this civil contempt proceeding in declaring it to be something it was not — a criminal contempt proceeding,"

Plaintiffs in the case of Cobell vs. Norton seek a full accounting of trust funds and allege that the government's mismanagement of the fund has cheated American Indians out of billions of dollars.

"Without accountability, Secretary Norton will continue to breach her trust duties and will continue to engage in malfeasance," lead plaintiff Eloise Cobell stated. "Integrity and competence are absolutely essential for the prudent management of the individual Indian trust, and today, none exists."

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