LANDER - Wind River Indian Reservation tribes could realize about $6.5 million in federal payments after the U.S. Supreme Court on Monday declined to consider the government's appeal of a lower-court ruling in favor of the tribes.
Earlier this month, the Bush administration argued the Northern Arapaho and Eastern Shoshone tribes waited too long to sue the Interior Department over federal management of minerals on the reservation dating back nearly 60 years.
Without comment, justices let stand the lower-court ruling that allowed most of the claims by the Wyoming tribes. The tribes allege the federal government mismanaged oil, gas, timber and grazing royalties from 1946 to 1973.
An attorney for the tribes, speaking on condition of anonymity, estimated an ultimate payment of $6.5 million to the tribes from the Interior Department.
The refusal of the Supreme Court to reopen the case, the tribal attorney said, secures a $12 million payment received last year, as well as additional interest, at a rate yet to be determined.
"My general estimate is that the tribes will see a payment of $6 million, by settlement or negotiation, within the next six months," the attorney said.
The $6 million anticipated payment arises from an accounting of oil and gas royalties owed the tribes, but not enforced by the federal government, from 1973 to 2000, he said.
In addition, and as a separate issue, the Supreme Court's denial of the federal appeal sets the stage for an additional $550,000 payment to the tribes, based on an earlier settlement about sand and gravel royalties, he said.
The attorney readily acknowledged that compared to a potential federal liability of $200 billion in a class-action trust management lawsuit (Cobell v. Norton), this victory for the Wind River tribes is relatively minor.
"It is good for the tribes," he said, but was uncertain whether it will have any implications for the larger lawsuit, potentially affecting 500,000 American Indians.
Ordinarily, fraud claims have a six-year time limit for filing suit. But a federal statute allows the tribes to postpone that deadline if the government hasn't provided an accounting of the trust funds set up on their behalf. The Interior Department has not done that yet.
At issue was the scope of the federal law allowing the delayed claims if they concern "losses to or mismanagement of trust funds."
The tribes argued that should include alleged mismanagement of natural resources, such as failure to negotiate adequate prices for sand and gravel leases, that they say devalued their trust fund. The government disagreed and argued they should be limited to mismanagement of funds actually contained in the trust accounts.
In a ruling last year, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Federal Circuit staked a middle ground. It allowed claims involving the actual trust funds as well as alleged losses due to the government's failure to collect payments under sand and gravel payments. But it rejected the tribes' claims of losses due to inadequate negotiation of lease prices.
The Justice Department had urged the Supreme Court to hear the appeal, arguing that the lower ruling "will revive long-moribund claims and substantially increase the potential liability and litigation burdens of the United States."
In 1887, Congress created a trust fund for Indians managed by the government.