Federal judge in Montana criticized over racist Obama joke

MISSOULA, Montana Fri Mar 2, 2012 8:21am EST

Related Topics

MISSOULA, Montana (Reuters) - A federal judge in Montana who used official court email to circulate a racist joke about President Barack Obama has acknowledged the indiscretion and initiated a misconduct complaint against himself, court officials said on Thursday.

The scandal prompted government ethics watchdog group Common Cause and the Montana Human Rights Network to call on Thursday for the resignation of the Billings-based judge, Richard Cebull, the chief judge for the U.S. judicial district in Montana.

The email in question came to public light when it was published on Wednesday by the Great Falls Tribune, which received a copy forwarded to the newspaper by someone else in the chain of the email's distribution.

The subject line of the two-paragraph email, sent from Cebull's courthouse email account on February 20 to various friends and acquaintances, according to the newspaper, reads: "A MOM'S MEMORY."

The text starts out saying, "Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine."

The joke that followed included a lewd reference to Obama's biracial parentage.

Cebull was appointed to the federal bench in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush.


The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Montana, said in a statement that Cebull "has publicly acknowledged that he has acted inappropriately."

Through a letter he sent to the chief judge of the 9th Circuit, Cebull "has initiated the process by which a complaint of judicial misconduct will be brought against him," the statement said. It added that the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit was expected "to act expeditiously in investigating and resolving this matter."

Common Cause said it filed its own, separate complaint against Cebull with the Judicial Council.

"If he has any respect for his office and for ideals of equality and human dignity on which our country was founded, Judge Cebull will step down today," Bob Edgar, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.,-based group said in a statement.

Under the U.S. Constitution, federal judges are appointed for life and can be removed only through congressional impeachment, a process that has rarely resulted in a judge's dismissal.

A finding of misconduct by a Judicial Council can constitute grounds for impeachment. But David Madden, assistant executive for the 9th Circuit, said he did not think dismissal was likely in such a case, where the complaint was self-initiated. He added that the judge could continue to serve on the bench while the complaint was processed.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed that severe sanctions against Cebull were unlikely.

"I suspect what's going to happen is there will be some degree of reprimand or admonition coupled with a suitable apology on the judge's part," he said.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said through a spokeswoman that he was "concerned by the situation because it calls into question a lack of judgment by a federal judge."

A representative for Cebull could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

He has publicly admitted sending the email. He told the Great Falls Tribune in an interview published on Wednesday, "I apologize to anybody who is offended by it, and I can obviously understand why people would be offended."

(Reporting by Lori Grannis and Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Thomasch)

We welcome comments that advance the story through relevant opinion, anecdotes, links and data. If you see a comment that you believe is irrelevant or inappropriate, you can flag it to our editors by using the report abuse links. Views expressed in the comments do not represent those of Reuters. For more information on our comment policy, see http://blogs.reuters.com/fulldisclosure/2010/09/27/toward-a-more-thoughtful-conversation-on-stories/
Comments (9)
jwbiii wrote:
I am reminded of a scene from “Wings Across the Pacific.” Humphrey Bogart sets a pistol on the table and says, “It’s time for you to take the man’s way out.”

Mar 01, 2012 10:52pm EST  --  Report as abuse
AZWarrior wrote:
Racists don’t have the right to call others racist. Obama gave up the right to use the race card when he sat for decades at the feet of Rev. Wright, and when he appointed Eric Holder. Don’t even go here with me.

My government does not obey or respect the rule of law, so all bets are off. I no longer have any obligation to obey the law.

Mar 02, 2012 1:33am EST  --  Report as abuse
Robert76 wrote:
Sending all the racist emails that I have seen is in real poor taste. A sitting Federal Judge knows better. He has a duty to uphold higher standards. He should be ashamed of himself. I note that once his behavior was reported, he turned himself in. At least he got that one right.

Mar 02, 2012 10:06am EST  --  Report as abuse
This discussion is now closed. We welcome comments on our articles for a limited period after their publication.