Thank you to the Attorney General, and thank you to Secretary Salazar and Deputy Secretary Hayes for the extraordinary commitment of their Department of the Interior to bring this case to a resolution. I also want to give special thanks to the attorneys of the Justice Department’s Civil Division, who worked extraordinarily hard and showed professionalism at its highest level throughout this case.
The Attorney General mentioned the scope of this litigation, but I want to repeat that. This case involves allegations of breach of trust that literally go back to the nineteenth century and has taken 13 years, through seven full trials and 192 trial days and ten rounds at the Court of Appeals, to reach this point. I think it’s safe to say that for many at the Department, for our partners at Interior and the Department of the Treasury, for Ms. Cobell, and for the hundreds of thousands of Native Americans who have been awaiting resolution, today is a remarkable day.
I want to briefly explain the three primary components that will be provided for in the agreement, which is contingent both on legislation enacted by Congress to implement the settlement and on approval by the Court.
First, the settlement resolves the plaintiffs’ claims for an historical accounting for funds that the government held in trust for Native Americans. This resolution is critical for both the past and the future. It is important for the past, because it will result in a $1,000 check being sent to each member of the historical accounting class. And it is important for the future, because it allows both the government and each holder of an individual Indian Money account to have certainty as to the amount in each account – something that has been in doubt since this litigation began.
Second, the settlement resolves essentially the next lawsuit -- a lawsuit that would challenge not how much money is in the accounts currently, but whether there should be different amounts had the government managed differently the hundreds of thousands of acres of land and millions of dollars that it holds in trust for individual Native Americans. Under the settlement, the plaintiffs will amend their complaint to add these claims, and those claims will be resolved. Plaintiffs in this class – the trust administration class – will receive significant payments, based on a formula to be approved by the court.
Finally, the settlement provides a framework through which the Department of Interior can reverse the system that led down this path. The trust system that the government manages has become increasingly complex over the years, as lands that were jointly owned by a small handful of individuals several decades ago are now often owned by many times that number, as the individual owners have passed away and left those interests to be divided among their heirs. Some parcels of land, divided among sometimes hundreds of owners, can be economically useless. And some parcels cost more to administer on an annual basis than they may be worth.
If approved by Congress and the Court, the settlement will provide $2 billion for the Department of Interior to begin purchasing back those interests in highly fractionated pieces of land. Over time, the Department will then transfer those consolidated pieces of land into the ownership of tribes pursuant to rules that Congress has previously established.
Again, I want to thank everyone who has spent so much time waiting – and working – for this resolution. I would like to give special thanks to the extraordinary lawyers of the Department’s Civil Division, especially Mike Hertz, Chris Kohn, John Stemplewicz, Mike Quinn, and the lead negotiator, Bob Kirschman. I am honored to serve with you. I’d also like to thank Hilary Tompkins from the Department of the Interior, Paul Wolfteich from the Department of the Treasury, and Brian Hauck from my office for all of their efforts.
The Attorney General's remarks from the Cobell v. Salazar settlement can be found, here.