‘Clearly a ... landmark piece of litigation’

It’s an unlikely story: The man who in 1975 became Georgia’s first Jewish congressman goes on, 35 years later, to become a successful crusader for Native American land rights.

But it’s Elliott Levitas’ true tale.

Levitas, 79, appears to be on the verge of winding up a nearly 14-year legal battle with the federal government over how it allocates and manages land-rights payments granted to Native Americans. (“Appears” because the proposed settlement, reached in December, requires congressional action, and Levitas says his many years in law and politics have taught him not to celebrate too early.) If all goes as planned, Levitas says, the $3.4 billion settlement will be a precedent-setting victory.

The lead plaintiff is Elouise Cobell, a member of the Blackfeet tribe from Montana whose case was broadened to demand an accounting for nearly 11 million acres that was parceled and put into individual trusts for Native Americans in 1887. The proposed settlement defines how much is owed to more than 300,000 Native Americans whose land has been leased to timber, ranching, farming, oil and mining operations. It also provides for the government to reform its accounting and payment procedures regarding Indian land trusts.

Levitas was brought into the case by a college friend. As he built the legal case, he also helped build a Native American practice at Kilpatrick Stockton, one of Atlanta’s largest law firms. The practice group started with one employee — him — and now has 17, including some lawyers who are Native Americans.

Q: What is the significance of the Cobell case?

A: This is clearly a historical, landmark piece of litigation. As far as I know, it is the largest class-action [lawsuit] ever brought before the federal government. It deals with a historic injustice in which the United States, our country, has mistreated Native Americans.

Q: What are the economic implications for the plaintiffs?

A: They will get compensation, not as much as they should if the settlement is implemented as currently written, but certainly for people in Indian country, which is one of the poorest areas of America, this money will make a heck of a lot of difference.

The resolution also has led to trust reform to improve records management.

Q: So, that will make it easier for the plaintiffs to manage their own land resources?

A: That is exactly right. Until this suit was brought, the beneficiaries of the trust would get misinformation or wrong information about their land ownership.

The recordkeeping was some place between bad and nonexistent.

[Improved land records management] will make it easier for the Indians not only to know what they are supposed to be getting, but it also will make it easier for them to sell their land.

Q: What has the Cobell case meant for Kilpatrick Stockton’s business?

A: Certainly, it introduced us to a new area of law generically called Indian law. We represent a number of tribes, not only on [land] trust issues. ... We have represented several tribes who have litigation going, we have represented tribes on labor issues, and other matters as well.

Q: Does the largest part of the Indian law practice involve litigation?

A: I would say so ... But as time goes on I think it’s fair to say that the practice area will expand significantly, far beyond litigation. Financing, for example: How do you finance real estate construction? How do you finance shopping centers on Indian lands? ... You are dealing with issues of sovereign immunity. You can’t just sue an Indian tribe. It has got the same sovereign immunity that a city or state has. There are benefits to having immunity from litigation. But there are downsides. If they [the tribes] want to go into a business transaction, they’ve got be able to reassure the people they are dealing with that they will be able to have normal commercial relations.

Q: That sovereign immunity takes away a business partner’s ability to sue a tribe it if doesn’t uphold its side of a contract?

A: That’s right. Those are the things we have developed expertise in.