Judges reject Interior Secretary's claim

Department of Interior

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An independent three-judge panel this week rejected an appeal made by Interior Secretary Gale Norton and rebuked her for withholding information from Indian Trust Fund beneficiaries.

Attorneys for the government had claimed attorney-client privilege in appealing previous rulings forcing them to disclose trust fund information. But in the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia, the judicial panel unanimously upheld the prior decision made by U.S. District judge Royce Lamberth.

The panel ruling, issued Tuesday, is the latest development in the case of Cobell vs. Norton, a legal drama that has stretched into its seventh year. American Indians have listed Secretary Norton as a defendant in their case regarding the management of the Indian Trust Fund accounts.

The panel also instructed Norton to show just cause for using private lawyers rather than government attorneys, given the fact that her personal legal fees for private counsel are reimbursed at taxpayer expense. Norton was given 30 days to respond to this order.

The Court of Appeals ruled that Norton can no longer challenge the District Court's use of the fiduciary exception to the attorney-client privilege, meaning that information regarding the trust fund cannot be withheld from the plaintiffs.

Still in contention is a plea made by lawyers representing American Indians to reinstate contempt charges against Secretary Norton. Judge Lamberth held civil contempt charges against Norton and her top Indian Affairs aide, Neal McCaleb, in September 2002, but a separate three-judge panel reversed that decision in July.

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