DENVER — For decades, American Indians have argued that the federal government swindled them under a trust account system created in the closing days of the American frontier more than 120 years ago.
On Thursday, a federal judge agreed, up to a point.
The judge, James Robertson of Federal District Court in Washington, ruled that the plaintiffs, however much they had prevailed in proving government failure, were entitled to only a fraction of the billions of dollars they sought. Judge Robertson said that trust law is applied differently to government trustees than it would be to private citizens, and that instead of the $48 billion that the descendants of the original trust holders claimed, the government was only liable for about $455 million.
“He basically accepted the government’s argument that not that much money is missing,” said Bill McAllister, a spokesman for the plaintiffs, who are led by a member of the Blackfoot tribe in Montana, Elouise Pepion Cobell. “He rejected our methodology and our theory of the case.”
Ms. Cobell said in a statement that lawyers were studying whether to appeal. Lawyers representing the Interior Department, the defendant, did not return a telephone call.
Judge Robertson did not actually order the government to pay; hearings on that question are scheduled for later this month. And he was scathing at times in describing how the case had illuminated government mismanagement, including a long trail of lost or destroyed records about money owed to Indians for timber leases, oil leases and other activities.
“Historical wrongs,” the judge wrote, “could have been — and should have been — settled by the same political branches in recognition of their own failure.”
But the judge disagreed with the argument by lawyers for an estimated 500,000 descendants of the original trust holders, who argued that the accounting should factor in how much the government improperly gained — by using the Indian money for its own benefit, in lower borrowing costs or interest earned, for example — over decades.
The class-action suit was filed in 1996 after other suits by Indian descendants were dismissed.