Three members of the Montana House Judiciary Committee have vocally come out in support of disgraced federal Judge Richard Cebull. Last week, Cebull seriously undermined the public’s trust in his ability to preside over cases fairly as a neutral arbiter, regardless of who the parties are. However, desperate to defend the indefensible, the Montana legislators are seeking to reframe this as simply an example of someone being punished for exercising his First Amendment rights.
The Great Falls Tribune reports (subscription only):
Three Republicans on the state House Judiciary Committee supported embattled federal Judge Richard Cebull in emails to fellow state lawmakers this week, with one legislator thanking Cebull for exercising his right to free speech. …
[Rep. David] Howard went on to say that Cebull’s comments "were his own, and isn’t that Freedom of Speech?"
"Freedom of Speech is being able to say something that might offend someone! Being offended is not a barrier to free speech. Therefore, the unalienable right of freedom of speech doesn’t concern itself with feelings," Howard wrote.
Howard then went on to thank the judge for exercising that right.
This has nothing to do with freedom of speech. It has to do with the role of a judge in our constitutional system.
It is important that Americans see their judges as neutral arbiters, not as political figures. There is a reason that the Supreme Court Justices don’t applaud lines they agree with during the State of the Union. It would be unseemly. It would cast doubt on their ability to be neutral judges.
A federal judge is free to hate the president and his policies, just as other Americans are. And he is free to privately tell his friends that, just as other Americans do. But because he is a judge, he is NOT free to express his disdain in public. Unfortunately for this judge, his words have become public. People now cannot help but doubt his neutrality, and therefore his fitness as a judge.
To use a sports analogy, if a football referee is known to have grossly insulted some of the teams, then acknowledges that he did so because he strongly dislikes them, would anyone want him refereeing a game they cared about? Would anyone trust his calls, especially the difficult ones where the answer isn’t clear? Good referees are constrained in what they can say about the teams whose games they oversee, not because they don’t have freedom of speech, but because they accept voluntary constraints as part of their job description.
In this case, it isn’t just the integrity of a sports league at issue: It’s the integrity of the system of justice throughout our entire federal courts system. Every American has a right to their day in court, but that means nothing if everyone knows the court is run by a grossly biased judge whose every decision comes under a cloud.
How sad for the people of Montana that three members of their state’s House Judiciary Committee have so little understanding of the basic concept of having a fair hearing in court.