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Our View: The sad story of Judge Cebull - the system failed


January 20, 2014

In February 2012, an email written by U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull of Billings surfaced. It was a racist joke about President Barack Obama that anyone with an ounce of integrity would have found sickeningly offensive.

There were calls for Cebull’s resignation, but the judge’s defenders said that his one mistake was not sufficient to warrant his removal from office.

After a far-too-long investigation, a judicial review panel has revealed that Cebull had written several hundred inappropriate emails showing disdain for blacks, Native Americans, Hispanics, women and gays.

The one mistake, as it turns out, was just the tip of a very ugly iceberg.

He wrote of his opinions on pending legislation concerning gun control, health care, civil rights and environmental issues. All of these topics were likely to come before Cebull, the chief justice for Montana.

On March 15, 2013, the Judicial Council of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, the justices who serve western states including Montana, issued a report detailing Cebull’s wrongdoings and issued sanctions including a 180-day suspension and insistence that he attend classes aimed at eliminating his bigotry.

No impeachment, the panel ruled. That would be excessive.

Besides, a study of his rulings, decisions and sentencings found no hint of bias, the panel said.

You can’t help but wonder, though, if a Native American who was sentenced to jail or a gay person who lost a civil lawsuit might question the impartiality of a judge with such a record of bigotry.

The report was never released. Cebull resigned, and the 9th Circuit panel kept the report secret, telling the public that had paid his salary and counted on his judicial independence to, in effect, butt out. The question was “moot,” they said. Cebull was now out of the way.

The whole Cebull affair raises all kinds of troubling questions.

Cebull was nominated for the federal bench by President George Bush in 2001. Certainly, Cebull’s outrageous racism must have been known to many people before that. How did his conduct escape detection in the Bush review process?

The United States Senate confirmed his nomination. The Senate has held up numerous judicial nominations from presidents of both parties for absolutely silly reasons in recent years. In the vetting process, didn’t any senator or Senate staffer hear of Cebull’s conduct?

Cebull sent hundreds of racist and unethical emails. There must have been many, many recipients. Are people in such fear of the federal judiciary that they are afraid to report this racism to authorities?

But there are some heroes in this case.

Someone courageously leaked the Obama email to an investigative reporter for the Great Falls Tribune, who exercised tremendous journalistic integrity and reported on the judge's outrageous behavior. Remember John S. Adams’s professionalism the next time you hear about people complain of the intrusive media.

And there is Judge Theodore McKee, the chief judge of the 3rd U.S. Circuit in Philadelphia, who challenged the 9th Circuit’s decision to prohibit the public from knowing about this sad saga in U.S. judicial history.

This sad episode will cause many people to hold the judiciary in distrust. The only solution to that problem is for everyone who is in any way involved in the vetting process for federal judges — presidents, senators and the media — to carefully examine every aspect of a potential judge’s record to ensure that no one with Cebull’s attitudes is ever named to the bench again.


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