Reprimand only for politically biased, racist, sexist federal judge

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.”

Elizabeth Warren decries lack of professional diversity on federal courts

From Think Progress/ Justice By Nicole Flatow on Jun 18, 2013 at 1:30 pm

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) brought renewed attention to the critical battle over nominees to the federal courts Thursday evening, in remarks that blasted the “corporate capture” of the federal courts, and called on those concerned with the political system to care as much about the make-up of the courts as of the legislature.

Observing courts’ increasing tendency to side with corporate interests and narrow individuals’ access to justice, Warren flagged a glaring skew in the professional experience of federal judges, the vast majority of whom have experience either as corporate attorneys or prosecutors. Warren lamented that only three percent of federal appeals court judges have substantial legal experience working for a nonprofit organization, and a similar percentage have worked in some capacity to enforce civil rights, according to an American Constitution Society report. And while President Obama has been responsible for some of the most notable exceptions to this trend, recent accounts show that the federal courts continue to be dominated by the same sorts of professional backgrounds.

She pointed to Judge Edward Chen, a rare judge with recent experience working at an organization that enforces civil rights. She explains:

At his induction ceremony, Judge Chen was quoted as saying that he never considered withdrawing his name from consideration because, as he explained, “I believe that someone should not be disqualified from the bench simply because they once represented the voiceless and unpopular, rather than the wealthy and the powerful.” Judge Chen is right.

But Judge Chen’s nomination process exemplifies why there are not more judges like him. Chen was first nominated in August, 2009. Chen, not just a former ACLU lawyer but also one of the first Asian Pacific American nominees on the court, received the highest possible rating of unanimously well qualified from the American Bar Association, and had experience as a magistrate judge. His nomination was nonetheless subject to relentless obstruction and an “unseemly smear campaign,” with the Senate sending his nomination back to President Obama for three sessions in a row. Obama stood behind his nominee, and, after the vacant court seat had sat empty for more than two years, Chen was eventually confirmed in May 2011. The successful confirmation required not just the commitment of Obama, but also of Chen. Most nominees cannot tolerate the toll on their career imposed by several years of nomination limbo and Senate scrutiny. And the White House does not have the political capital to push through very many Chens, meaning most of his nominees have had similar professional experience to that of his Republican predecessors. Other nominees, like Rhodes Scholar and award-winning teacher Goodwin Liu, never made it through this obstruction at all.

In her address to the progressive legal community at the American Constitution Society’s national convention, Warren calls for “a new generation of judges, judges whose life experience extends beyond big firms, federal prosecution, and white collar defense.”

While professional diversity has lagged, Obama has made unprecedented progress in contributing to race, gender, and sexual orientation diversity on the federal courts. But combating the corporate chokehold on the ideological leanings of nominees may prove an even more difficult challenge.