The US District Court for the District of Columbia began hearings Monday in Cobell v. Kempthorne, a class-action suit brought in 1996 alleging US government mismanagement of trust funds for a group of some 500,000 Native Americans and their heirs. Judge James Robertson will decide how much the government owes the class members for land-use violation penalties and royalties that plaintiffs say the US Department of the Interior (DOI) has not paid since 1887. In March 2007, the plaintiffs rejected a $7 billion settlement proposal from the US government, and have since asserted that the DOI owes them $58 billion. In January, Robertson ruled that the DOI "unreasonably delayed" the accounting of billions of dollars of American Indian money, holding that it was impossible for the DOI or for Congress to remedy the breach.
In July 2005, Judge Royce Lamberth ruled, that the DOI must apologize to the plaintiffs for its handling of the trust, and must admit that information being provided to them regarding outstanding lost royalties on earnings from Indian land may be unreliable. Lamberth also held two former Secretaries of the Interior, Gale Norton and Bruce Babbitt, in contempt and forced the department to protect Indian files by disconnecting its computers from the Internet. In 2006, the US Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit removed Lamberth for alleged lack of objectivitgy and reassigned the case to Robertson.