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Fmr. Chief District Judge Cebull Retires, Email Scandal Over?

By William Peacock, Esq. on April 04, 2013 | Last updated on March 21, 2019

More than a year after the Ninth Circuit initiated a judicial misconduct review at his own request, former Chief District Judge Richard Cebull stepped down from the bench, ending his brief foray into senior status.

For those who missed last year’s scandal, Judge Cebull asked the Ninth Circuit to review whether his forwarding of a racist anti-Obama email amounted to judicial misconduct. According to the Courthouse New Service, the email, which was forwarded from his official work email address during court hours, stated:

"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? His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!'"

While normally we'd avoid quoting such inappropriate material, the content of the email is relevant to the concerns of some over whether Judge Cebull, in finding such things humorous, could be impartial in cases involving women and minorities, reports The Associated Press. He previously stated that he forwarded the email, not because he was racist, but because he was not a fan of President Obama.

Judge Cebull initially forwarded the email to a handful of his "old buddies." From there, it was forwarded further, and further, and further, with Cebull's name still attached. Eventually, it made its way to The Great Falls Tribune.

Despite calls for resignation, he initially declined to step down. Instead, he requested the judicial review. According to the Billings Gazette, he later stated that he intended to take senior status on March 18, 2013, the first day in which he would be eligible under the "rule of 80" (65 years old and 15 years of service), in order to allow time for a replacement to be found while he continued to hear cases.

On March 15, however, the Ninth Circuit released an order on the investigation. That order is still sealed while the appeal is pending. Judge Cebull's retirement, however, seems to make it likely that the outcome was not in his favor.

This email snafu is a prime example of the caution we've preached here, here, and here. While it may be possible that Judge Cebull is a fine and truly impartial judge, even the appearance of impartiality calls into question his decisions on the bench. And though, as a lawyer, you may not have a duty to remain impartial, you also have a reputation to protect. Think twice before forwarding off-color emails, especially through your professional accounts.

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