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Montana federal judge sent hundreds of biased emails, panel finds

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

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull admitted in 2012 that he had sent the email appearing to equate the president and African Americans with dogs and raising questions about Obama's biracial ancestry.

In the email, 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 email 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 U.S. 9th 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 U.S. 3rd 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 email archives, which date back to 2008, and found that he had expressed disdain for African 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, healthcare or environmental matters."

Nowhere in the 37-page memorandum of decision does it say how many of Cebull's emails included bigotry. Nor does the panel specifically quote any emails, other than the original Obama email 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 email, particularly when coupled with the hundreds of other emails regularly sent from Judge Cebull's court email 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 email," the findings said. 

"Public shaming [in reaction to the email] has been a life-altering experience," he told the committee.

Although Cebull acknowledged his history of inappropriate emails, 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. 

No one said Cebull displayed bias or prejudice in his professional conduct. Some even told the committee that they thought he "made extra efforts to be fair and accommodate Native Americans, including regularly approving their requests to conduct traditional rituals while incarcerated."

The committee said there were "some general detractors," but most friends and acquaintances "were adamant that he was not biased in any way and commented that they often saw him interact with minorities without prejudice."

But the interviews may not be completely candid. "A few witnesses commented that given the small number of judges in the District of Montana and the close-knit legal community, lawyers might be reluctant to make negative comments about Judge Cebull, even anonymously," the panel wrote.

Cebull, a University of Montana School of Law graduate, was nominated to the federal bench by President Bush in 2001. He served as chief judge from 2008 to 2013. 

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saba.hamedy@latimes.com

Twitter: @saba_h

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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