People For the American Way

Good-Bye, Judge Cebull

We finally have news on the investigation of Judge Richard Cebull of Montana: He is retiring.

Judge Cebull, you may recall, sent a disgustingly racist e-mail about President Obama to his friends, then explained that he did so because he doesn't like the president. Racism and openly expressed partisanship are toxic to the idea of a fair and just federal court system, which relies on having trustworthy, unbiased judges, which is why PFAW called on him to resign more than a year ago. Instead, he remained on the bench, continuing to hear cases. Two weeks ago, he took senior status, meaning he would continue to hear cases, but in a semi-retired status allowing him to have a lower caseload.

It turns out that something interesting happened on Cebull's last day as an active judge, March 15. Yesterday, after a year-long investigation, the Ninth Circuit announced:

Judge Cebull's [March 2012] self-filed complaint and another were referred to a Special Committee which conducted a thorough and extensive investigation, interviewed numerous witnesses, considered voluminous documentation, including emails, and conducted an interview with Judge Cebull. The Special Committee's Report was submitted to the Judicial Council in December 2012. On March 15, 2013 the Judicial Council issued an Order and Memorandum. Judicial Conduct Rule 20(f). Pursuant to Judicial Conduct Rules 22 and 24(a), the Order and Memorandum remains confidential during the appeal period.

At this time, Judge Cebull has submitted his retirement letter, pursuant to 28 U.S.C. § 371(a), effective May 3, 2013. The Council will have no further statement on this matter until Judge Cebull's retirement is effective.

We don't know yet what the March 15 letter said, since it remains confidential until the end of the appeal period, which, according to SFGate, is 63 days (which would be May 17). But we do know that mere days into his senior status, Judge Cebull has decided to stop hearing cases altogether, effective two weeks before the complaint becomes final and public.

So before the appeal period ends, Judge Cebull will be off the bench. That will eliminate the power of the Judicial Council of the Ninth Circuit to discipline him. In fact, the Council will likely be forced to replace the March order with a dismissal. As it stated in 1986:

[C]omplaints [against former judges] have been routinely dismissed. Such conduct can no longer prejudice the effective administration of the courts by the person complained of, or the discharge by that person of all the duties of judicial office. The several remedial methods prescribed by [law] are clearly directed at preventing the recurrence of actions by that judicial officer that might impair the administration of justice. When the subject of the complaint is no longer a judicial officer, he is beyond the reach of these procedures and the remedies they prescribe.

Judge Cebull should have resigned more than a year ago. Perhaps the discipline he was faced with was so great that he realized he had no choice but to resign. If the case is dismissed as moot because he has retired, we may never know what that March 15 order said. But we can guess. And other federal judges should understand that conduct such as Judge Cebull's is unacceptable.


judges, Lower Federal Courts, racism, Richard Cebull