“The mind of the bigot is like the pupil ofthe eye. The more light you shine on it, the more it will contract.”
– Oliver Wendell Holmes, Jr.
former U.S. Supreme Court Justice
On Feb. 27, 2012 a source e-mailed me a tip that nearly knocked me out of my chair.
“I happened to get an email forwarded to me that originated with Richard Cebull, the U.S. District Judge. Here is the joke that was in it. Is there a story here?”
What followed left me picking my jaw off my desk:
“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.”
“A little boy said to his mother; ‘Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?’” the email joke reads. “His mother replied, ‘Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!’”
This highly offensive, misogynistic and racist “joke” about the President of the United States and his mother was sent by the Chief Judge for the Montana U.S. District Court from his court-issued email account.
“Is this a story?”
You bet it is, and I wasted no time in breaking it.
Over the course of the next several months a special investigative committee appointed by the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals examined Cebull’s misconduct. To make a very long story short, the probe looked at four years worth of Cebull’s emails and found “hundreds” of emails “related to race, politics, religion, gender, sexual orientation and politically sensitive issues that were inappropriate for Judge Cebull to have sent from his federal email account.”
From the committee’s findings:
“A significant number of emails were race related. Whether cast as jokes or serious commentary, the emails showed disdain and disrespect for African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics, especially those who are not in the United States legally. A similarly significant number of emails related to religion and showed disdain for certain faiths. Approximately the same number of emails concerned women and/or sexual topics and were disparaging of women. A few emails contained inappropriate jokes relating to sexual orientation.”
So far, the Court has refused to release the emails to the public.
On Thursday, after years of trying to obtain the contents of the investigative file, Shane Castle, of the newly formed independent news organization Big Sky Investigative Reporting, joined me in filing a lawsuit in California seeking to force the release of the emails.”
Some might suggest that since Cebull resigned as judge, this matter should be laid to rest.
We couldn’t disagree more.
“It’s not just important to see the content of all the emails Judge Cebull sent, but also to see who sent them to him and who he forwarded them to,” Castle said. “Cebull betrayed the public trust so it’s not unreasonable for the public to suspect other officials may have been among those actively participating in the email chains.”
Our attorney, Larry Organ of the California Civil Rights Law Group, is representing Native American plaintiffs in a related lawsuit seeking to preserve the investigative file. On Tuesday they had a hearing before U.S. District Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers in Oakland, Calif.
There are a lot of questions still unanswered.
“Justice demands the 9th District Circuit Court Executive free the file with Cebull’s emails,” said Oliver Semans, director of the Indian advocacy group Four Directions. “How can the public be sure Cebull was exercising unbiased judgment unless we see the emails? We know he was sending bigoted emails about groups of people who were appearing in his court. This screams biased judgment.”
Crow Tribal Chairman Darren Old Coyote issued the following statement in response to our lawsuit:
“We call on the Court to make public the racist and inappropriate Cebull emails. Simple justice demands no less as it is obvious that Indian people were denied justice in front of this racially compromised judge. More importantly, the officers of the court who were aware of Cebull’s conduct must be exposed as they had a duty to come forward.”
There’s only one way to put to rest questions about whether Judge Cebull was able to compartmentalize his biases against women, people of color, Indians, members of the LGBT community while sitting in judgement from the federal bench.
We hope the California District Court agrees and forces the 9th Circuit to release the investigative material and shine a light on this bigotry.