The Justice Department took the unusual step yesterday of asking that a new judge be assigned to a nine-year-old lawsuit by American Indians seeking a century's worth of unpaid oil and natural gas royalties.
U.S. District Judge Royce C. Lamberth has been highly critical of the Interior Department for failing to identify how much money Indian tribes are owed. Last year the judge held Interior Secretary Gale A. Norton in contempt of court.
Lamberth's "legal errors and unconventional case management" are impeding an accounting of the royalties, the Justice Department said in a 20-page filing asking a federal appeals court to order a change in judges.
The Justice Department said that a July 12, 2005, ruling by Lamberth "is unlike any other judicial opinion that we have ever seen." The department criticized Lamberth for making a "gratuitous reference" to murder, dispossession, forced marches and other incidents of cultural genocide against the Indians.
Lamberth's ruling, the Justice Department complained, described the Interior Department to be a "dinosaur -- the morally and culturally oblivious hand-me-down of a disgracefully racist and imperialist government that should have been buried a century ago, the last pathetic outpost of the indifference and anglocentrism we thought we had left behind."
Dennis Gingold, lead attorney for the Indians suing the government, said the government's problem is not the judge but rather being called to account for "100 plus years of bad facts, its pattern of unethical behavior, and its persistent strategy of diversion, delay and obstruction."
In 1994, Congress found problems with the Interior Department's administration of 260,000 Indian trust accounts containing $400 million.
The Indians allege the department mismanaged oil, gas, grazing, timber and other royalties from their lands dating to 1887. Elouise Cobell of the Blackfeet Tribe and others sued in 1996 to force the government to account for billions of dollars belonging to about 500,000 Indians. The Indians say they are willing to settle for $27.5 billion.
Sen. John McCain (R-Ariz.) has criticized the government for having "never really even made any serious attempt at keeping track of the revenues" it owed the Indians. But he said the $27.5 billion figure is "just way out of sight."