Racist or Clueless? Chief Judge of Montana Under Fire For Obama Joke

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.

Source: Politico

456 thoughts on “Racist or Clueless? Chief Judge of Montana Under Fire For Obama Joke”

  1. Another stupid racist repuglicant – OLD WHITE MAN – these are the people who believe rape doesn’t really exist, who insist that a woman have every single baby even if it endangers her own life and then after the kid is born, cares nothing for it and will cut off food stamps and other needed support. They are the ones who try to keep minorities from voting. They insist that they are Christians, but go against all of Jesus’ teachings. They believe gun ownership was a right given to Americans by God himself. They hate liberals, gays, blacks, Obama, immigrants, non-Christians, Muslims, Arabs, Hispanics, Jews, unions, the poor, anyone on unemployment, those who get social security and/or Medicare or Medicaid (the moochers), the homeless, environmentalists, conservationists, scientists, college professors, school teachers, government employees, newsmen who don’t work for Fox News, the disabled, the handicapped, veterans, women, and yes, the sick. Oh, but they love. They love guns, wars, tax shelters for the rich, lower tax rates for capital gains, off-shore bank accounts, rich people, Wall Street, banks, large corporations, welfare/subsidies for corporations, private schools, and idiots and hate mongers like Limbaugh, Palin, Cruz, and Bachmann. I am so sick of them and their negativeness. It is vile, repugnant, un-Christian, and truly un-American. We need to get these people out of public offices and positions of authority – like judgeships!

  2. as per Professor Turley: “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.”

    “Entirely clueless and thoughtless” is “never good in a judge”?


    That’s like saying, “Being absolutely clumsy with his hands and not caring what the Hell he is doing is never good in a surgeon.”

    It’s like saying, “Hating kids and knowing nothing is never good in a teacher.”

    It’s like saying, “Being drunk all the time and not having a driver’s license is never good in a Greyhound bus driver.”

    It’s like saying, “Unfamiliarity with basic Hebrew is never good in an Orthodox Rabbi.”

    It’s like saying, “Fear of flames and a lack of physical fitness are never good in a firefighter.”

    COME ON!

    The man makes decisions about other people’s rights — including their Constitutionally protected civil rights under law! Nothing he does can be challenged unless he can be shown to have made a “legal error” and even that, only if it can be shown to have not been “harmless.” He decides habeas corpus peititions alleging that African Americans have been unconstitutionally convicted of crimes they did not commit and HE ALONE gets to decide whether their convictions were, or were not, valid. HE IS A FEDERAL JUDGE.

    “Entire clueless and thoughtless” is OK with you on his part? He should keep his job? There’s something defensible in that? What standards do we have?

  3. Sling, you’re not getting the joke, probably because you haven’t got the context of it. So bear with me. You analyze everything so well that you’re analyzing this as if it could have occurred, and figuring out what the various “statements” made by the joke could mean. That’s not how it goes.

    In my opinion, here’s how it goes:

    1. Obama is no good.
    2. His mama is trash.
    3. How she got to be trash was by means of sex with a Black man.
    4. The way to “diss” [DISRESPECT] Obama is to “play the dozens” with him.
    5. To play the dozens, you diss somebody’s mama.
    6. Back to “his mama is trash.”
    7. Back to “sex with a Black man.”
    8. A kid asked his mama how come, if he was black, she was white.
    9. She answered, in simultaneous translation, “You’re black because I’m a slut, so I went to a party and had sex with a black man and a dog. You’re lucky that the genes you got were black man genes, because otherwise you would have had dog genes.”

    It works, as a “dozens.” But the judge is not a kid in the ghetto playing “dozens.” Yet what he has said is clearly identifiable as a put-down based on race. The joke cannot be analyzed as if it were other than an unsophisticated and stupid insult, but to racists, it is funny.

    Now back before the 2008 election, there was some psycho-addled-racist-punk Black preacher on You-Tube holding forth on “Obama’s Mama” whom he called “TRASH.” He claimed that his rant was motivated by his own mother’s advice to him that white women who slept with Black men were trash, and he used a lot of incendiary and vulgar words worse than “trash” or “slut” but I frankly can’t remember them. He was spewing rage, hatred, fear, and racism in a barely controlled spitting hissy fury at the woman who had dared give birth to Obama — and this was pre-election and obviously pre-drone.

    An African American friend of mine sent me the clip and I watched it thinking it was a parody and thinking it was going to get funny. It never did. I still have the feeling I had after watching it: “huh? He’s for real?”

    But he was an ignorant minister of some small church somewhere, not a federal judge. This judge is so obviously unfit it shocks the conscience that there can be any cavil about just starting a loud, public, indignant, and IMMEDIATE call for his removal from the bench. How dare he try to do anything other than slink away in disgrace!

    What about respect? What about contempt? What about decorum? Wy would anybody think he should get up the next day and grab his gavel and continue the charade of being someone who gives proper consideration to the issues brought before him when he has done something so shameful and disgraceful as passing along this alleged joke?

    Federal judges have all kinds of rules and regulations to follow. If they go astray, they are supposed to lose their jobs. That is the only way we can even BEGIN to have faith in the federal judiciary, since appointments to that lofty bench are FOR LIFE.

    WHO are the five persons to whom he forwarded that joke who did NOT report that activity? Members of the Bar? Members of the Bench?

    Let’s just imagine there’s a lawyer in Cebull’s court. And remember, the federal district courts are the ones who hear CIVIL RIGHTS CASES brought under 42 USC 1983. OK, so the lawyer is in front of Cebull and Cebull is dismissing someone’s civil rights complaint for no reason and it is obvious that the dismissal is being done in a racist manner and the only possible response will be appeal to the federal circuit appeals bench which will be out of reach for the client because of cost and time. So let’s imagine that this lawyer is overcome with frustration and indignation and he says, “Your Honor, with all due respect, your mother had sex with a dog.”

    What happens to that lawyer, huh? Any guesses?

    What is wrong with our whole society is Cebull. He is what is wrong with everything. Our courts are bastions of corruption with idiots and racists and misogynists and mentally disturbed punks and alcoholics and drug addicts and child abusers on the Bench (not all of them; it just depends on what kinds of parties their mothers went to).

    Our legislatures are conglomerations of people who either are trying to do a good job, trying to do something to boost their egos, or trying to advance their careers, all at random and with the reliability of lightening strikes.

    Our executive branch is a combination of stupidity, dishonesty and every human weakness, all protected by a circle-the-wagons mentality so strong that the simplest public deed is bent out of shape and if you keep at it long enough, becomes a monstrosity sure to do harm.

    Because of people like Cebull, and because of Cebull himself. He wields enormous power. His “discretion” covers practically EVERYTHING. He is not one vote on a committee; he is not one vote in a legislature. How anyone can imagine he should remain on the bench for another minute is beyond me. The best thing he could do would be for him to step down in disgrace and accept the shame that he has surely earned with nearly every order he has entered.

  4. I never realized this was an old thread. Don’t know why it just recently kicked up on my screen, so I commented now, thinking it current.

    Anyway the last line of my rant that still awaits moderation was:

    I am drunk with disgust. Cebull should be gone. The last official words said to him should be: SHAME ON YOU.

  5. Folks, my last comment on Judge Cebull is “awaiting moderation.” HA HA HA HA HA HA HA!!

    One additional comment: Judge Cebull mentioned to his e-mail buddies that the story touched his heart. This comment, it seems to me, is strangely inapplicable to the “joke” that follows. Touched his heart? One expected to read something about orphans becoming self-made businessmen, or brave pets rescuing their owners, or the like. This dumb “joke” touched the judge’s heart?

    Or maybe he just needs a lesson in anatomy.
    I await moderation. (Is that like, being moderate?)

  6. I don’t even have to read the remainder of this story to know that not only were this judge’s RACIST statements demeaning toward African-Americans it was definitely demeaning to the post of the Presidency and to the President himself. This individual seems to have no problem insisting that the email is not about Black people, just about the President…who considers himself Black, and insisting that the email was not intended for the public. Really? You sent it on a government server while at work for the government; it was and is intended for the public. Seriously? Where’s the personal responsibility judge, YOU wrote and hit the send button while working as a constituent for the PEOPLE, under their dime…Take some ownership of your actions. If this were a sexually explicit viral video there would be more public outcry for his resignation. This was a racist, derogatory, and offensive statement aimed at the President of the U.S., regardless of the President’s ethnicity; this was a direct and personal insult to the Office of Presidency and should be treated as such. Regain what little respect you have left and step down from your post Cebull, because you have surely lost any respect to be associated with the post of Judge.

  7. From PFAW:
    UPDATE: Three right-wing state legislators in Montana have come to Judge Richard Cebull’s defense, with one even ridiculously thanking Cebull for exercising his “freedom of speech.”

    P.S. Rep. John Conyers has now called for a congressional hearing “to consider the full ramifications of Judge Cebull’s conduct on integrity of the federal judiciary,” and to consider possible “further investigation or possible legislative action.”

    Congressional attention is certainly warranted and welcome, but Judge Cebull should take it upon himself to do the right thing and step down.

    ( http://site.pfaw.org/site/PageServer?pagename=Cebull&autologin=true )

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