EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

January 19, 2014

ex-Montana federal judge sent hundreds of prejudiced e-mails, panel finds

By Saba Hamedy
Los Angeles Times (MCT)

---- — A former chief federal judge in Montana who retired after forwarding a racist e-mail about President Barack Obama sent hundreds of other inappropriate messages from his court e-mail account, according to judicial review panel findings released Friday.

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull admitted in 2012 that he had sent the e-mail appearing to equate the president and black Americans with dogs and raising questions about Obama’s biracial ancestry.

In the e-mail, a boy asks his mother why he is black and she is white. His mother replies, “Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!”

The Great Falls Tribune, which initially obtained the e-mail and interviewed Cebull about it, was the first to publish an article on Feb. 29, 2012. The story triggered mass media coverage, public outrage and judicial investigations.

The controversy spurred Cebull to apologize to the president. “I sincerely and profusely apologize to you and your family.... I have no one to blame but myself,” he wrote in spring 2012.

After an investigation of Cebull, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ Judicial Council issued an order on March 15, 2013, which included a reprimand and a requirement that he make a second apology acknowledging “the breadth of his behavior.” The order and the panel’s findings were not made public at the time.

He announced his retirement two weeks later, and left the bench on May 3. Then the 9th Circuit declared the issue moot.

But another federal judge, Theodore McKee of the 3rd U.S. Circuit, objected, accusing the council of concealing Cebull’s misconduct.

A national judicial council reviewed the proceedings and determined that the findings should be published. “The imperative transparency of the complaint process compels publication of orders finding judicial misconduct,” the panel wrote.

The findings were released Friday.

A special committee reviewed Cebull’s e-mail archives, which date back to 2008, and found that he had expressed disdain for black Americans, Latinos, women and various religious faiths.

The committee organized the emails into categories that ranged from “race-related emails that showed disdain for African Americans and Hispanics, especially those who are not in the United States legally,” to “emails related to pending legislation or an issue that could come before the courts, such as immigration, gun control, civil rights, health care or environmental matters.”

Nowhere in the 37-page memorandum of decision does it say how many of Cebull’s e0mails included bigotry. Nor does the panel specifically quote any emails, other than the original Obama e-mail from February 2012.

But, the findings say, the “majority of emails were political in nature,” with a “significant number” of race-related emails.

“The racist and political February 2012 e-mail, particularly when coupled with the hundreds of other e-mails regularly sent from Judge Cebull’s court e-mail account, reflects negatively on Judge Cebull and on the judiciary and undermines the public trust and confidence in the judiciary,” the council said.

In sending the emails, the council found, Cebull violated canons 2 and 5 of the judicial code of conduct, which state that a judge “should avoid impropriety and the appearance of impropriety” and is prohibited from political activity.

When the committee interviewed him, Cebull “acknowledged the seriousness of the issue and did not attempt to minimize or explain away the February 2012 e-mail,” the findings said.

“Public shaming (in reaction to the e-mail) has been a life-altering experience,” he told the committee.

Although Cebull acknowledged his history of inappropriate e-mails, he emphasized that all the messages were intended as private communication.

In interviews with more than 25 people in Montana, many of whom were in Cebull’s professional or social circles, witnesses generally “regarded Cebull as a good and honest trial lawyer and an esteemed trial judge,” the findings say.