A long-running battle between a federal judge and the Interior Department spread to Capitol Hill last week with a blunt judicial outburst that accused Congressional appropriators of undermining the court’s authority.
U.S. District Judge Royce Lamberth, who is the only federal judge in history to hold Cabinet officers in contempt of court, lashed out at Congress for inserting a little-noticed provision in a massive spending bill earlier this year. The provision placed a salary cap on a special master appointed by Lamberth to investigate the government’s handling of Indian trust-fund money.
Lamberth pointedly and at length noted that few Members of Congress, including House Appropriations Chairman Bill Young (R-Fla), knew what was in the 3,000 pages of paper that was enacted into a massive omnibus spending bill on Feb. 13.
Tucked deep inside was a provision targeting the legal fees to be paid to Joseph Kieffer, the special master who has infuriated Justice and Interior department officials with his findings.
While limiting Kieffer’s fees, the provision also authorized taxpayers to foot the personal legal bills of 39 government officials who have been implicated in the legal inquiry, which stems from a 1996 lawsuit filed by more than 300,000 American Indians over the government’s management of a 116-year-old trust fund.
A month after President Bush signed the spending bill into law, government lawyers balked at paying Kieffer more than $38,600 in fees by citing the obscure provision in the new law.
In an eight-page opinion dated May 21, Lamberth exploded.
“This Court knows of no previous Congress that has ever intervened in a specific pending civil action to reduce the compensation rate for judicial officials below the market rate set by the Court. For the legislative branch to interfere with an ongoing case by attempting to preclude a court from ordering compensation rates for its special masters appears to be wholly without precedent,” Lamberth wrote.
In a footnote, Lamberth observed that “the appropriations provision at issue attempts to undermine the finality of an order issued by the judicial branch, which may constitute an unwarranted invasion of the authority vested in the federal courts by Article III of the U.S. Constitution.”
But while he held off going down that road further, Lamberth was not finished fuming, aiming his ire at the Interior and Justice department officials who may have schemed with legislators to insert the fee cap.
“The appropriations provisions at issue in this matter appear to represent yet another attempt by defendants to evade the rule of law by any means available to them, no matter how duplicitous or underhanded. They also serve to demonstrate defendants’ manifest hypocrisy,” Lamberth raged.
For more than seven years, government lawyers have accused Lamberth of undermining the constitutional separation of powers with his incendiary rulings that have resulted in three Cabinet officers of two presidential administrations being cited for contempt.
“This purported indignation stands in marked contrast to the alacrity with which defendants utilized the power of the executive branch to apparently persuade the legislative branch to undermine the effect of judicial orders,” Lamberth wrote.
But Lamberth showed that even judges can be clever. The provision in the spending bill applied to appropriated funds for the Interior and Justice departments. But it didn’t apply to the Treasury Department, which also happens to be a named defendant in the lawsuit.
“Therefore, if the Department of the Interior refuses to bear the expenses incurred by the Special Master, the Treasury Department will foot the bill for the services rendered by the Special Master,” Lamberth ordered.
And, noting the provision authorizing the payment of legal bills for the 39 government officials, Lamberth noted that “defendants thus have no problem with spending the taxpayers’ money, as long as it benefits them. But when ordered to compensate judicial officers whose appointment was necessitated by their own misconduct, defendants suddenly become born-again fiscal conservatives.”
And in one final little jab, Lamberth, hoping to give Congress all the information it needs for the next spending bill, ordered that the government provide a detailed accounting of all the legal bills being racked up at taxpayer expense.