U.S. District Chief Judge Richard Cebull, Montana's chief federal judge, admitted this week he sent a racist email attacking President Obama and his mother from his courthouse chambers. Yesterday, the story took an even more serious turn.
The Judicial Council of the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals opened a misconduct review of Montana's chief federal District Court judge for forwarding a racially charged email about President Obama from his courthouse computer.
Judge Richard F. Cebull asked for the review as calls mounted Thursday for his immediate resignation. Legal ethics experts predicted the incident would result in a public admonishment.
The judge also sent a letter to the president, saying, "I sincerely and profusely apologize to you and your family for the email I forwarded.... Please forgive me."
The next question is whether this will be sufficient.
On Capitol Hill, Rep. Charles Gonzalez (D-Texas), chairman of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus, called on Cebull to resign. Gonzalez, along with the chairs of the Congressional Black Caucus and Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, issued a joint statement condemning the judge for the incident.
Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-Mo.), the chair of the CBC, added, "An apology alone is not acceptable."
What's more, Common Cause, which filed a formal complaint with the 9th Circuit, has called for Cebull's ouster, and the Montana Human Rights Network has begun collecting signatures urging the judge to resign.
As for the misconduct review, initiated by Cebull himself, there are a handful of questions for the judicial council to consider.
All federal judges are expected to meet published ethical standards and the Code of Conduct, which call on judges to refrain from political activity and ask that those on the bench "act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."
The misconduct review process could lead to a variety of outcomes, ranging from dismissal of the complaint to a recommendation of impeachment, which would be in the hands of the U.S. Senate.
What's likely to happen in this case? Mark Follman talked to some experts in judicial ethics.
Where to draw the line between appropriate and inappropriate speech by judges is a complicated matter, says Jeffrey M. Shaman, a judicial ethics expert at DePaul University College of Law. But there seems to be little doubt that Cebull crossed over the line. "Offensive, racist speech such as this clearly diminishes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary, and therefore should be considered a violation of the Code of Judicial Conduct," Shaman told me. "Judge Cebull ought to know better, and his circulation of such a disgusting message makes one wonder if he is competent to serve as a judge."
What might the consequences be for Cebull?
"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," wrote George Washington University legal scholar Jonathan Turley on Thursday. "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."