Reprimand only for politically biased, racist, sexist federal judge

January 24, 2014
By: Charles Lamberton

A judicial oversight body which found hundreds of biased, racist and sexist emails authored by a sitting United States District Court Judge would have let the judge remain on the court and continue to hear cases, despite his admitted political bias, racist and sexist views.

Montana’s chief federal judge retired in May after admitting he had forwarded a racist e-mail about President Obama from a courthouse computer. But now an investigation by a court disciplinary council in San Francisco has revealed that Judge Richard Cebull sent hundreds of racist, sexist and politically inflammatory e-mails on the same computer over a four-year period.

The Judicial Council of the Ninth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals originally approved the report on March 15, 2013, with public release scheduled two months later. Yet when Cebull announced his retirement May 2 after the furor over his Obama e-mail, the council, chaired by Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, dismissed its disciplinary proceedings, and withheld its report and issued a statement saying only that it had found “similarly inappropriate e-mails” sent by Cebull. Fortunately, on Friday, the U.S. Judicial Conference’s Committee on Judicial Conduct ordered that the report be made public.

A former Montana attorney and federal magistrate, Cebull was appointed to the court by President George W. Bush in 2001 and became Montana’s chief federal judge in 2008.

The Great Falls Tribune first uncovered the Obama e-mail that Cebull had forwarded to a group of friends in February 2012, with an introduction that said, “Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.” It read: “A little boy said to his mother, ‘Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?’ His mother replied, ‘Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark.”

Cebull issued an apology after the newspaper reports and acknowledged the message was racist. He said he had forwarded it because “I am not a fan of our president.”

In its now-public report, the Ninth Circuit Judicial Council said a subsequent search of court computer tapes dating from 2008 found hundreds of disparaging e-mails sent by Cebull to “personal and professional contacts and court staff.” Many messages were political and expressed “disdain and disapproval for liberal political leaders” or commented on legislation on topics like gun control and civil rights, the report said. It said a significant number included jokes or commentary disparaging African Americans, Native Americans, Latinos – especially illegal immigrants – and women, and a few were anti-gay.

The council said Cebull had done nothing illegal that would justify his impeachment but reprimanded him for actions that undermined “public trust and confidence in the judiciary.” A council majority voted to bar him from receiving new cases for 180 days and order him to undergo training in ethics and racial awareness. Two council members – U.S. District Judge Claudia Wilken of Oakland, the Bay Area’s chief federal judge, and U.S. District Judge Anthony Ishii of Fresno – voted to go further and ask Cebull to retire, “in recognition of the severity of his violations and the breadth of the public reaction.”