Racism and sexism work in pernicious ways. Although there are still open racists and sexists everywhere, thanks to the civil and women’s rights movements much of what we now see resides in more subtle institutional arrangements and private, informal interactions that define our daily existence. Racism and sexism lurk in systemic processes, in implicit understandings, in gestures and jokes. Hidden from the light of public scorn, they thrive in structural formalities, personal relationships and private interactions.
Every once in a while, we catch a rare glimpse of these manifestations. U.S. Chief District Judge Richard Cebull’s e-mail and equivocations provided the latest example. Sent an admittedly racist and misogynistic email, Cebull chose to promote it to others. And when caught having forwarded the disturbing message, Cebull tried to distinguish the email’s content from his intent and his act from his character, demonstrating a profound misunderstanding of racism and sexism.
Cebull presides over a system rife with inequities. In Montana, Native Americans, blacks and other people of color are disproportionately arrested, sentenced, and imprisoned; legal claims of discrimination by women are routinely minimized. This often happens not consciously, but subconsciously and systemically. Cebull’s conduct raises doubts that he is capable of recognizing, much less addressing, these systemic problems. His explanation that he was not being racist but being anti-Obama fails to realize that he was being anti-Obama precisely by being racist. His letter of apology to President Barack Obama also suggests a disturbing lack of concern. After self-reporting his conduct to the Court of Appeals, promising not to send any more racist and sexist emails, and apologizing, the letter concluded: “Honestly, I don’t know what else I can do.”
As lawyers and educators, we realize this is an opportunity to contribute to the understanding of these issues. In his graduation speech to our students last year, Cebull told them that lawyers have the solemn obligation to ensure the integrity of our legal system. Indeed, in a prescient statement, he cautioned students to be reflective about emails they send. Key to preserving judicial integrity is cultivating compassion and sensitivity, particularly toward those marginalized by our system of justice. We urge our students to use this unfortunate incident to evaluate the legal system and their vocation critically, to question their assumptions, and to challenge both overt and hidden bias in our profession and society.
We acknowledge Cebull’s contributions to our profession. We also hear his contrition and recognize that we have all made mistakes. But his is not a simple lapse in judgment or momentary moral failing. As a federal district judge – the chief judge of Montana – the consequences of his actions are that racial and ethnic minorities, women and even people with whom he disagrees politically now have clear reason to question his ability to be fair and impartial when they appear in his court. The cynical may even try to exploit his revealed biases.
Cebull has irreparably compromised his ability to promote the independence, integrity and impartiality of the United States District Court in Montana.