Judge in Interior Dept. Indian Case Irks Administration

U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth may have long ago chosen to work in straight-laced Washington, but he radiates his love for his home state of Texas.

The Reagan appointee has been known to appear at conferences wearing his 10-gallon hat and a shirt sewn like the Lone Star State flag. When he shakes your hand, friends say, he grips your shoulder so hard your whole body rocks back and forth with the movement.

Given his good ol' boy image and conservative background, much has been made about how Lamberth has handled the case for which he is best known in Washington these days — a class-action lawsuit by thousands of American Indians accusing the Interior Department of mishandling more than $100 billion in royalties from their lands back to 1887.

The nearly 10-year-old case, known as Cobell v. Norton, involves the dry question of whether the government adequately kept records to show how it handled money from oil, gas, grazing and other royalties it has held in trust for Indians.

Lamberth's decisions, however, have been anything but boring. Fans and detractors alike have marveled at how this cowboy has sided with the Indians.

Twice, Lamberth ordered the department to disconnect its computers from the Internet for failing to provide adequate security for the Indians' trust records. He has held Interior Secretary Gale Norton and her Clinton-era predecessor, Bruce Babbitt, in contempt for their handling of the trust fund.

Often, the Court of Appeals has reversed Lamberth's opinions, including the contempt order against Norton. This month, that court vacated Lamberth's order that the government do a detailed historical accounting of the money it owes the Indians.

The Bush administration has become so frustrated with Lamberth that it has taken the unusual step of asking he be removed from the case.

Lamberth is highly respected as a judge nevertheless. The Almanac of the Federal Judiciary rated him "tops in legal ability," but also warned: "He is no shrinking violet. He can get angry."

In a ruling in July, Lamberth let loose against the Interior Department. He called it a "pathetic outpost" and said the Indian royalties case "serves as an appalling reminder of the evils that result when large numbers of the politically powerless are placed at the mercy of institutions engendered and controlled by a politically powerful few."

Lawyers say Lamberth holds government attorneys to the same high standard as private-sector lawyers, something few federal judges do. They say he gets frustrated when the government is less than candid in court, and he has been known to sanction agencies when they don't follow the rules.

"He really does view everyone in government as having a strong duty to the people," said Mark Nagle, a lawyer who has worked for Lamberth.

In an interview with The Associated Press, Lamberth said he bases his decisions on the law and doesn't worry about what others think. "I don't shrink from making decisions, even controversial ones," he said.

A native of San Antonio, Lamberth, 62, earned his undergraduate and law degrees from the University of Texas. He was drafted out of law school in 1967 and entered the Army Judge Advocate General Corps during Vietnam. Until he was appointed to the bench in 1987, he worked in the civil division of the U.S. Attorney's Office in Washington.

Early in his career, Lamberth was confronted with cases involving government wiretaps and other lawsuits in which the government wanted to gather information or keep it secret from the people.

He said he learned a lot about the government from those experiences. Ultimately, he said, he tried to demonstrate that no one is above the law by making sure the government never got away with lying to the court or Congress. And that desire has been reflected in his opinions ever since.

During the Clinton years, Lamberth attracted national attention by allowing conservative watchdog Larry Klayman to take sworn depositions from and subpoena a long list of administration officials. Among other things, Klayman accused the Commerce Department of selling trips on official trade missions to Democratic donors.

Lamberth was criticized for it, and Klayman was dismissed as a gadfly. But Lamberth said it was difficult to deny Klayman the right to depose people when he kept "finding another government misstatement under every rock he turns up."

In the end, Lamberth said, the public was served because the administration was forced to provide hidden documents and information.

Lamberth was so associated with Klayman's attack on President Clinton that many were surprised when the judge was equally hard on President Bush's officials in the Indian trust case.

Some wonder now whether the judge has lost control of the lawsuit. The court battle has gone in circles from Lamberth to the appeals court and back, and there's no end in sight.

Jonathan Turley, a George Washington University law professor, who represents another professor tangentially involved in the case, said the lawsuit has become "a true morass," akin to "invading Russia in winter."

But Clark Neily, a former Lamberth clerk who is now a senior attorney for the libertarian Institute for Justice in Arlington, Va., said that those with a better alternative to Lamberth should step forward.

"It's very difficult to know for sure whether some of the more extreme orders he's issued in that case were necessary or not," Neily said. "But the people who brought that lawsuit have a right to see a resolution in their lifetime."