Federal judge struggles with allegations of racism

Federal judge struggles with allegations of racism
Federal judge struggles with allegations of racism

U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Cebull admitted yesterday to sending a racist email about President Obama from his courthouse chambers. His apology left much to be desired.

The subject line of the e-mail, which Cebull sent from his official courthouse e-mail address on Feb. 20 at 3:42 p.m., reads: “A MOM’S MEMORY.”

The forwarded text reads as follow:

“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 e-mail 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!’ “

Cebull, an 11-year veteran of the federal bench, was a George W. Bush nominee. He’s served as Montana’s chief federal judge for nearly five years.

After his email worked its way to a reporter at the Great Falls Tribune, Cebull was asked for an explanation. The judge admitted having sent it, acknowledged the message’s inherent racism, but denied being a bigot. Cebull said, “I apologize to anybody who is offended by it.”

That’s not an uncommon line, but it’s also not a real apology. Genuine regret in a situation like this means apologizing for sending racist garbage, not apologizing to those who happen to be offended by racist garbage.

Cebull added the email was intended to be a private communication and “was not intended by me in any way to become public.” This, too, is unhelpful. The judge is effectively arguing, “Sure, I sent along an ugly, racist message, but don’t worry, you weren’t supposed to know about it.”

Cebull insists he’s not a racist, and only sent the message because of his hostility towards the president.

His weak explanation notwithstanding, a federal judge whose impartiality and lack of prejudice has been called into question has a problem. Going forward, will African Americans in Cebull’s court room have confidence in his professional standards and sense of fairness? Will Democrats?

Travis McAdam, executive director for the Montana Human Rights Network, said. “We have a hard time believing that a legitimate criticism of the president involves distributing a joke that basically compares African Americans with animals.”