Racist Emails of Federal Judge, and Why Native Advocates Want to See Them

This article first appeared on Indian Country Today Media Network in February 2014. For more reaction to the scandal, check here.

They say the cover-up can be worse than the crime, and right now they’re running neck and neck in the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, the federal court system for the nine westernmost states. Both the Ninth Circuit and one of its former chief district judges, Montana’s Richard Cebull, have been taken behind the judicial woodshed by a federal panel with a very long name—the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States.

On January 17, the oversight panel reprimanded Cebull for sending hundreds of emails with disparaging racial, sexual, religious and political content, including “disdain and disrespect for African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics.” During Cebull’s career, he sentenced numerous persons of color and, in fall 2012, used what the Justice Department called a “completely incorrect” reading of the Voting Rights Act to deny Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch, a Native American voting-rights lawsuit with implications for minority ballot access nationwide.

The federal oversight panel also sternly reminded the Ninth Circuit judges who uncovered Cebull’s many messages, then attempted to sanitize them, that it’s “important to maintain public confidence in judicial conduct.”

Finally, the panel made public the report the Ninth Circuit investigating judges had written, then tried to replace with a second, milder document.

That’s a start, said Bret Healy, consultant to Native voting-rights group Four Directions, which is advising Montana tribes on Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch. “The full content of the emails must be released. Even learning in the current, tougher report that the messages are ‘disparaging’ or went to ‘colleagues’ and ‘court staff’ isn’t enough. What did they say? Who received them? How did they reply? Cebull was a federal judge. The public deserves to know.”

The scandal’s first round landed in February 2012, when Cebull emailed colleagues a sexually repellant slur directed against President Obama’s late mother. The message was forwarded and ended up at a newspaper. The story went national, with officials, organizations and members of the public demanding Cebull’s resignation.

This furor was still in full cry in the fall of 2012, when Cebull heard Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch. In the suit, Montana Native plaintiffs asked for equal access to early voting. Cebull played out the proceedings until Election Day, when he decided Indians couldn’t have early-voting offices.

“Every once in a while, a spotlight suddenly shines on what you’ve been fighting for, and everything becomes clear,” said OJ Semans, Rosebud Sioux civil-rights leader and co-director of Four Directions. “Back in 2012, we knew Cebull was no good, and to have the federal oversight panel confirm it is perfect.”
Meanwhile, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch didn’t die in Cebull’s courtroom. The Native plaintiffs appealed, and other Ninth Circuit appeals judges (not involved in the cover-up) vacated Cebull’s decision and sent the case back to Montana for a re-do. A new judge will preside over a preliminary hearing this week and a trial in June.


“That’s good,” said Healy, “but if Cebull hadn’t heard this case to begin with, tribal members in Montana would have equal voting rights already, and we wouldn’t be wasting all this time.”

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