Chief U.S. District Judge of Montana Richard Cebull is under fire for a joke that he sent to friends from his court email. The email has been denounced as racist and “compares African-Americans to dogs.” He insists that it was not for public circulation and reflected his dislike for the president, not black people.
Judge Cebull sent an email entitled “A MOM’S MEMORY.” It opened with the statement “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.” It follows with this “joke”: “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 says that it was only sent to six other people as well as his own private emails. It appears that one of the six other people sent it along to the media.
Cebull insists that the email simply shows that “I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan. I didn’t send it as racist, although that’s what it is. I sent it out because it’s anti-Obama.”
We previously saw Chief Judge Alex Kozinski involved in a controversy over pictures and jokes sent to friends over a personal website.
The case raises the question of how to respond to such an email. Some have called for his resignation or removal. Others for judicial discipline. There are two likely ethical charges. One is the misuse of the court computer and the other is the transmission of a racist communication.
First, judges routinely use their work emails for private communications. We all tend to use office email for a variety of purposes. I do not see how this judge can be severely disciplined for simply using office email for a private communication. If Cebull is punished, what about the fact that probably 90% of judges use their office emails for private messages as the rest of us do (the other ten percent do not use email).
Second, there is the racism charge. Cebull insists that this was anti-Obama and not anti-black. It is still a stupid joke. However, I am not sure it is fair to assume that the judge is a racist from this one joke. It could simply show that he is entirely clueless and thoughtless. That is never good in a judge, but the question is whether it warrants the actions demanded against him.
Working in his favor is the relatively small number of people who received the email (though one always has to anticipate re-transmissions or forwarding of emails). He was sharing a bad and racially loaded joke with friends. We have discussed the trend toward punishing public employees for private emails, postings, and activities. Of course, a judge is required under ethical rules not to conduct themselves in a way to bring contempt upon the court. Canon Two states “a judge should respect and comply with the law and should act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary.” The comment Canon 2A does seem to have some relevance here:
Canon 2A. An appearance of impropriety occurs when reasonable minds, with knowledge of all the relevant circumstances disclosed by a reasonable inquiry, would conclude that the judge’s honesty, integrity, impartiality, temperament, or fitness to serve as a judge is impaired. Public confidence in the judiciary is eroded by irresponsible or improper conduct by judges. A judge must avoid all impropriety and appearance of impropriety. This prohibition applies to both professional and personal conduct. A judge must expect to be the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen. Because it is not practicable to list all prohibited acts, the prohibition is necessarily cast in general terms that extend to conduct by judges that is harmful although not specifically mentioned in the Code. Actual improprieties under this standard include violations of law, court rules, or other specific provisions of this Code.
While I certainly see why this type of joke raises serious and legitimate concerns, I am not convinced that it warrants punishment beyond the current (and justified) public criticism. The judge is claiming that he thought he was sending this to a handful of friends. It would be akin to a bad joke at a party being repeated later. He clearly failed to appreciate that “the subject of constant public scrutiny and accept freely and willingly restrictions that might be viewed as burdensome by the ordinary citizen.” That would include racially-charged jokes that get out. Yet, the question is whether it warrants an actual reprimand or more serious punishment. There may be a sense that, given the use of the court computer, an admonishment is needed — just as Chief Judge Kozinski was admonished.
Cebull received a B.S. from Montana State University in 1966 and a J.D. from the University of Montana Law School in 1969. After a long stint in private practice, he served as trial judge of the Northern Cheyenne Tribal Court from 1970 to 1972. He then served as a United States Magistrate Judge for the District of Montana from 1998 to 2001 before being nominated by President George W. Bush to a seat on the United States District Court for the District of Montana. He became chief judge in 2008.