Players: Royce C. Lamberth

Straight Shooter to Some, Loose Cannon to Others

The Justice Department will try Friday to have U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth taken off a case alleging Interior Department mismanagement of Indian trust funds.
The Justice Department will try Friday to have U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth taken off a case alleging Interior Department mismanagement of Indian trust funds. (U.s. District Court Via Associated Press)
By Carol D. Leonnig
Washington Post Staff Writer
Thursday, September 15, 2005

The fans of U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth praise his straight-talking ways, his defense of the wronged, and his stinging rebukes of lawyers and officials who try to fudge the facts.

So many decades after he left his beloved Texas and cowboy roots for a legal career in government service, fellow judges and former colleagues say, old Royce still gets riled up when he smells a bunch of bull.

When Lamberth theorized in a July ruling that the Interior Department's failure, over many decades, to account for potentially billions of dollars owed to Native Americans could only be explained by outright evil, apathy, cowardice or -- more likely -- crushing bureaucratic incompetence, the Justice Department decided to go after the judge.

In one of the rarest legal moves Justice has ever taken, the government asked that a higher court remove Lamberth from a case he has overseen for the past nine years.

In the escalating and unparalleled war between the judge and Interior, Justice lawyers said privately they saw no other option. They argued to the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit that Lamberth has gone overboard in a string of verbal harangues in recent years, accused agency officials of racism and lost the appearance of impartiality in the case. Already, he has found two secretaries of Interior in contempt of court and ordered sanctions against numerous government lawyers for improper conduct in the case.

When they stand before a different bench tomorrow, government lawyers are expected to try to shift the discussion from the acknowledged failure of Interior to properly account for money held in trust and due 50,000 Indians, to the often assaulting words and actions of a powerful Reagan appointee who has made no secret of his disgust. Only three times before has this appeals court disqualified a trial judge from a case.

Lamberth and Justice Department officials declined to comment for this article. But their most recent writings in the case of Cobell v. Norton capture the tenor of what the appellate court's chief judge called the "peculiar dialogue going on" in Courtroom 21.

"On numerous occasions over the last nine years, the Court has wanted to simply wash its hands of Interior and its iniquities once and for all," Lamberth wrote. The plaintiffs have urged him to appoint a receiver to take over, he wrote, "but doing so . . . would constitute an announcement that negligence and incompetence in government are beyond judicial remedy."

In their Aug. 15 request for a new judge, Justice lawyers said that besides using intemperate language, Lamberth has ignored appellate rulings and accused the government of "falsification, spite and obstinate litigiousness" with "no legal or factual basis."

Lamberth has many defenders, from conservative Supreme Court justices to left-wing civil liberties lawyers, and is repeatedly ranked by lawyers as among the most skilled judges on the court.

Many of his fans applaud his stamina and even his outrage, but a few say privately that they think Lamberth has been pushed too far in the Interior case and has made himself a target with his sharp tongue. Said one fellow judge who requested anonymity: "He's been driven beyond the limit of his patience by these people. In his heart, he may know he's no longer dispassionate."

Since a Blackfeet tribe leader named Eloise Cobell filed this lawsuit in 1996, several independent investigations found much evidence for Lamberth's concerns. Although, the government initially said its existing Indian trust fund records were in good shape, Lamberth hired a hacker who found they could easily be accessed and altered from outside. Other reviews found that the Interior Departmenthad never kept complete records, used unknown amounts of money to help balance the federal budget, and let the oil and gas industry use Indian lands at bargain rates. They also concluded that the Clinton and Bush administrations have repeatedly sidestepped initiating the required accounting because of the likely cost.

Colleagues say Lamberth's strong prose is motivated by his government service and belief that it is a high calling. "He believes every person -- whether it's the president of the United States or an administrative clerk -- has a duty to serve the American people and do their duty as required under the law," said Mark Nagle, who worked under Lamberth when he ran the civil division of the U.S. attorney's office.

"I remember him calling up some senior-level presidential appointees and telling them: 'We can't defend this one. And we're not going to,' " Nagle said.

Lamberth's directness continued when he joined the bench. In presiding over several controversial cases involving the Clinton administration, Lamberth repeatedly accused government officials of trying to dupe the court.

In the November trial of Murder Inc. gang members, Lamberth spotted one defendant mouthing words to an ex-girlfriend as she reluctantly testified. Lamberth excused the jury, then let loose. "You sit down and shut up," the judge growled. "If you want to be bound and gagged for the rest of this trial, you just keep it up."

Lamberth has never spared the government in Cobell , and government lawyers say they cringe at his sometimes mocking tone. "You know any banker would be in jail for handling funds like this, don't you?" he told one Interior witness.

U.S. District Judge Stanley Sporkin, now retired, who was removed from a criminal case by the appeals court after not following sentencing guidelines, said Lamberth's motives are undoubtedly pure in Cobell , and the appeals court needs to acknowledge this litigation is "no tea party."

"Here you have a judge who is terribly frustrated," Sporkin said. "Every time he tells the government to get something done, they don't. It seems to me you have a bunch of crybabies that aren't willing to do what has to be done."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company