Appeals court blocks shutdown of Interior computers

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit has thrown out a judge's decision that would have ordered the Interior Department to shut down many of its networks. The court also called for the judge, who had overseen the case for a decade, to be removed.

The decisions delivered July 11 stem from a class-action lawsuit over Interior's mismanagement of Indian trust funds. American Indian plaintiffs accuse the department of failing to protect their data from hackers.

Last fall, then-presiding U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth dictated an injunction to shut down any computers, networks, handheld computers and voice-over-IP equipment that access trust fund data. The decision, which was issued Oct. 20, 2005, would have prohibited Interior employees, contractors, tribes and other third parties from using those systems. The next day, an appellate court postponed the shutdown, pending appeal.

The appeal opinions filed July 11 acknowledge extensive evidence of flaws in the department’s information technology security but ultimately side in its favor.

“The inherently imperfect nature of IT security means that if we granted injunctive relief here, based only on Interior’s security vulnerabilities and not on a showing of some imminent threat or specific reason to be concerned that individual Indian trust data is a target, we would essentially be justifying perpetual judicial oversight of Interior’s computer systems,” the opinion states.

There has been no evidence indicating that anyone has already altered Indian trust data by exploiting Interior’s security flaws or that such actions are planned, the document continues.

The court determined that the shutdown would have disrupted a wide swath of the department’s operations. Under Lamberth’s “overbroad definition” of Indian trust data, it is likely that “a very high percentage of Interior’s IT systems would be subject to disconnection, with serious consequences,” the opinion states.

For example, the Minerals Management Service relies heavily on automated

systems and access to the Internet to receive, process and disburse mineral revenues from federal and Indian-leased lands. The shutdown would have delayed or prevented the service from making monthly disbursements totaling more than $500 million to state, Indian, and Treasury accounts.

“We are confident that the harm Interior would immediately face upon complying with the disconnection order outweighs the class members’ need for an injunction,” the opinion states.

Last August, Justice Department lawyers filed a motion with the appeals court for reassignment to a different judge, citing inappropriate vitriol in a July 12, 2005, ruling.

The lawyers requested a new judge after Lamberth said, “Perhaps Interior’s past and present leaders have been evil people, deriving their pleasure from inflicting harm on society’s most vulnerable.… The government as a whole may be inherently incapable of serving as an adequate fiduciary because of some structural flaw. Perhaps the Indians were doomed the moment the first European set foot on American soil."

On July 11, the appeals court “reluctantly” concluded that a reassignment is necessary.

“What distinguishes this case from one in which a judge has merely become ‘exceedingly ill disposed towards [a party which] has been shown to be...thoroughly reprehensible,’ is, most certainly, not any redeeming aspect of Interior’s behavior as trustee,” the opinion reads. “Rather, what distinguishes this case is the combination of the content of the July 12 [2005] opinion and the nature of the district court’s actions.”

The appeals court also handed Interior a warning.

“As the litigation proceeds, the government must remember that although it regularly prevails on appeal, our many decisions in no way change the fact that it remains in breach of its trust responsibilities. In its capacity as trustee and as representative of all Americans, the government has an obligation to rise above its deplorable record and help fashion an effective remedy," the opinion states.

But the American Indian plaintiffs were not immune to criticism from the court, either.

"For their part, counsel for plaintiff-beneficiaries, as counsel to a large class of Indians and as officers of the court, would more ably advance their worthy cause by focusing their energies on legal issues rather than on attacking the government and its lawyers,” the opinion states.

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