After a 12-year legal fight, a federal judge said Monday he likely will award money to Indians whose lands have been mismanaged by the government.
Whether they'll ever see that money is another matter.
The lawsuit claims the government has mismanaged billions of dollars in royalties held in trust from American Indian lands dating back to 1887. U.S. District Judge James Robertson ruled in January that a full accounting at the Interior Department has become impossible.
Lawyers for the Indians contend the government must pay $58 billion, to be divided among hundreds of thousands of Indian trust accountholders. The government opposes that calculation.
Robertson scheduled another round of hearings in June to resolve the case.
"One way or another, the result of this case is a dollar figure," Robertson said Monday, but he said an appeals court may decide otherwise.
Further complicating matters, the amount of money is so large , roughly five times the size of Interior Department's annual budget , Congress would almost certainly have to vote to spend the money before it could be paid out.
Robertson expressed skepticism at the figure Monday, saying it had "considerably more zeros after the dollar sign" than he thought possible.
Regardless of the total, he said he needed to put a final figure on paper "so somebody in the other branch of government can figure out what to do about it."