TO READ U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth's opinion in the case of Eloise Cobell v. Babbitt is to take a crash course in the malice and neglect with which the federal government has, for a century, managed the lands it holds in trust for individual Indians. "The United States," Judge Lambeth writes, "cannot say how much money is or should be in the trust. . . . It cannot render an accurate accounting to the beneficiaries. . . . The court knows of no other program in American government in which federal officials are allowed to write checks--some of which are known to be in erroneous amounts--from unreconciled accounts--some of which are known to have incorrect balances."

The government, in fact, does not even know how many beneficiaries the trust should have. What is known is that many of the 300,000 or more beneficiaries (there could be as many as 200,000 more) are among the poorest of Americans, and that the funds they are supposed to be receiving are royalties from the use of lands forcibly taken from their families. Judge Lamberth has ruled this a breach of trust, and he is right.

Despite Judge Lamberth's language, his opinion actually cuts Interior Secretary Bruce Babbitt a considerable break. The judge did not appoint a judicial overseer to ensure that the department finally acts on its promises to fix this system. He seems convinced that the department's plan to restore the trust system is reasonable--assuming it is actually implemented. To ensure this, he retained jurisdiction over the case for five years.

Judge Lamberth is right not to seek, as a judge, to manage a federal agency. There is some reason for his confidence that the administration is at long last attacking the problem seriously. But the possibility lingers that representations Interior Department officials made at trial will some day just add to the long list of broken promises that make this case so infuriating. Judge Lamberth puts department leaders on notice that they are accountable to him for repairing the trust system. Mr. Babbitt, however, needs also to be politically accountable for these promises: Failure to reverse the century-long abuse of the trust system will be a significant stain on his tenure as secretary.