WASHINGTON, D.C. - On June 21, Senior U.S. District Judge Thomas F. Hogan gave final approval to a $3.4 billion settlement over the federal government's acknowledged long-running mismanagement of the Indian Trust.
Unless appealed, the ruling will give Native Americans the largest settlement ever reached with the federal government.
Once Hogan enters a written opinion on the ruling he gave from the bench Monday, the Interior Department may be able to begin making payments to the nearly 500,000 Native Americans as early as August. Only 92 individuals filed papers to object of the settlement.
Those numbers indicate that an overwhelming number of Native Americans approve of the settlement, the judge said.
"I am certainly not convinced that a better result could be achieved by taking it to all the way to trial," Hogan said. "It's hard to see there could be a better result."
If the case had not been settled, Judge Hogan predicted it would linger in the courts for another 15 years.
After presiding over a daylong fairness hearing on the settlement, Hogan said in an oral ruling he would give final approval to the settlement, holding it to be "fair, reasonable and adequate."
The judge also gave high praise to Elouise Cobell, the Blackfeet woman from Montana whose name became synonymous with the class action lawsuit she and four other Indians filed against the government in 1996.
"She has done more for the individual Native American than any other person in recent years," said the judge.
Cobell has shown "unusual effort and courage" in leading the lawsuit, the judge said.
"Ms. Cobell has dedicated her life to righting this wrong," said Lead attorney Dennis M. Gingold
Earlier in the day Cobell told the judge by telephone that the courts had been willing to help Native Americans when the other branches of the federal government failed them.
"For over 100 years, individual Indians have been victimized by the government's gross mismanagement of the Individual Indian Trust and our trust assets, including the income earned on our trust lands," she said. "And for the last 15 years this court alone has held out hope for individual Indians."
"The settlement isn't perfect," she told the judge. "I do not think it compensates for all the losses sustained, but I do think it is fair and it is reasonable."
Lawyers said the award to Cobell would not be a windfall as she will have to use it for the expenses she amassed during the litigation and loans she arranged to finance the case.
She also gave more than $390,000 of the MacArthur Genius Grant she received years ago to fund the lawsuit, Gingold said.
The judge also said he would grant legal fees of $99 million to the plaintiffs lawyers. That was more than the $50 million that the government had said the lawyers should be paid for their 15 years on the case.
In court on June 20, lead lawyer Dennis M. Gingold said the lawyers would not appeal any payment under $99.9 million.
William Dorris, another of the plaintiffs' lawyers, urged Hogan at the outset of the hearing "to bring this epic struggle to a close."
Lawyers for the government also urged the judge to approve the settlement, saying the government hoped the agreement would "turn a new page" in relations with Native Americans.
Judge Hogan agreed it has been an historic case, one that was bitterly contested by both sides.
It is good that the settlement was reached nearly two years ago and approved by Congress last year, he said.
"I don't think in today's world with all the talk of deficits, this would pass," he said.