Cobell settlement deadline extended

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WASHINGTON – Due to a hold up in Congress, Native American plaintiffs in the Cobell v. Salazar litigation and Department of Justice officials have agreed to a deadline extension involving a land claims settlement the two sides have negotiated.

The financial terms of the deal, announced Dec. 7, call for $1.4 billion for individual Indian trust fund beneficiaries and $2 billion for a land consolidation program to be overseen by the Department of the Interior to buy back fractionated trust lands.

Congress must approve of the settlement for it to become reality.

The new deadline for Congress to take action is Feb. 28; the old deadline was Dec. 31.

The House of Representatives has been less quick to review the settlement than the Senate.

On Dec. 18, Sen. Byron Dorgan, D-N.D., the retiring chairman of the Senate Committee on Indian Affairs, sent a letter to Senate and House leadership calling for action on the legislation “at the earliest possible time in January.”

SCIA had already held a hearing on the matter by that point, but the House had not done so.

The House and Senate have not voted on whether to approve the deal.

In late-December, Kilpatrick Stockton partner Keith Harper, a lawyer for lead plaintiff Elouise Cobell, and a spokeswoman for the Department of Justice issued the following statement: “In order for the agreement to remain valid after its existing December 31, 2009 Legislative Enactment Deadline, the parties have agreed to extend that deadline through February 28, 2010.”

If approved by Congress and the overseeing court, the settlement would bring an end to the case, which started more than 13 years ago.

Lawyers for the plaintiffs have agreed to cap their fees at $100 million.