Indian Trust injunction removed

Read the appeals court ruling

Appeals court judges declared today that U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth has the authority to order the Interior Department to go off-line, but they also said that he erred in doing so earlier this year.

A panel for the Court of Appeals in Washington, D.C., unanimously ruled that Lamberth was within his legal powers when he issued a March 15 injunction that required Interior officials to disconnect most of the department's computers from the Internet. However, Lamberth should have held a hearing on the security of Interior's systems before issuing his order, the appeals judges said.

"The district court could not resolve the state of Interior's IT systems security without conducting a hearing on the evidence in dispute," appeals court judges wrote in their 16-page opinion. "Under the circumstances, the court abused its discretion by not holding an evidentiary hearing before issuing the March 15, 2004, injunction."

Lamberth is overseeing Cobell v. Norton, an 8-year-old class-action lawsuit involving Interior's oversight of the Indian trust fund. Plaintiffs accuse Interior officials of doing a poor job of protecting trust data from hackers.

Interior officials are pleased with today's ruling, said Dan DuBray, a department spokesman.

"We are also greatly encouraged by this ruling, which allows the department to continue to utilize Internet-based tools to conduct departmental business," he said. "The department has made significant investments to upgrade its [information technology] capabilities, including substantial funding for systems that protect the security of sensitive data."

Lawyers for the plaintiffs said they remain optimistic because the appeals court affirmed the district court's authority, even though some security and legal experts believed Lamberth may have overreached with his injunction.

"The implications of this decision go far beyond IT security," said Keith Harper, attorney for more than 500,000 plaintiffs in the individual Indian trust case. "The Court of Appeals has wholly affirmed the right of the district court to exercise its discretion -- not just in securing the IT data but also in all other aspects of the case."

The March order was the third time Lamberth issued such an order to disable Interior's Internet connections on all computers that could be used to access Indian trust fund data. But Interior officials have already been operating online because a temporary stay had been issued on Lamberth's March injunction.

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