Chief Judge Richard F. Cebull makes a speech during a Naturalization Ceremony at the James F. Battin Federal Courthouse on June 23, 2011.

Judge’s Racist Emails—Are Native Plaintiffs Getting Closer?

Stephanie Woodard
10/12/14

“Bias destroys our communities,” said Blackfeet tribal member Lita Pepion, board member of Indian Peoples Action, in Butte, Montana. The justice-advocacy group was recently a plaintiff in federal court, with civil-rights attorney Lawrence Organ arguing on its behalf that the government should promise to preserve the hundreds of derogatory e-mails a Montana federal judge sent in the years before he retired in 2013.

The messages, which U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull sent from the computer in his chambers, disparaged American Indians, African Americans, Hispanics, women, members of the LGBT community, religious groups, liberals, and more, a federal investigation announced earlier this year. Other e-mails related to “issues that could come before the court,” the investigation found. The investigators described the e-mails in general terms; their current whereabouts and the precise content of only one are publicly known.

RELATED: Racist Emails From Federal Judge—And Who Cares About Them

On Tuesday, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, sitting in Oakland, California, granted the federal government’s wish to keep the content of the e-mails under wraps. However, the judge also asked that the plaintiffs—voting-rights group Four Directions and Crow tribal member Sara Plains Feather, in addition to Indian Peoples Action—return in a few weeks with an amended brief that will allow her to rule on the merits of the case, rather than on the procedural matters the government raised, according to Organ. The suit, a pre-complaint petition, was filed in California because the e-mails and related material are believed to be there.

RELATED: Racist Emails of Federal Judge; Why Native Advocates Want to See Them

“A great win” was how Rosebud Sioux civil-rights leader OJ Semans, co-director of plaintiff Four Directions, characterized Judge Gonzalez Rogers’s actions. Assistant U.S. Attorney Neill Tseng, who argued for the defense, refused to comment.

The scandal erupted in 2012, when Cebull sent several recipients an e-mail slurring President Obama’s mother. The message went viral, appearing in news accounts worldwide and raising hackles in groups including the House Judiciary Committee and the legislature of the Crow Nation, a Montana tribe. Many called for Cebull’s resignation, including the Montana Human Rights Network, which collected 2,800 signatures on a petition demanding he be shown the door. Investigations by the Ninth Circuit, of which Montana is a part, and a federal oversight panel, ensued.

“In the hearing, Judge Gonzalez Rogers was thoughtful and well-prepared,” said Organ, of California Civil Rights Law Group. “She understood the suit’s importance and the constitutional implications of a biased judiciary, including denial of due process and equal protection. She explained what she wants to see in our next brief, including plaintiffs who experienced clear adverse effects of Judge Cebull’s bias, and asked us to look again at procedural mechanisms for preserving evidence.”

Organ added that this case pertains to the bedrock of our democracy—a fair and unbiased judiciary. According to the Ninth Circuit’s 2012 investigation, “[Judge Cebull’s] neutrality could be questioned.”

In Department of Justice briefs for the case—Four Directions et al. v. Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States—the agency described the Native request as a fishing expedition and claimed “judges are absolutely immune from civil liability.”

Organ stressed that the Four Directions plaintiffs are not going after the judge. They are not asking for damages or that he be further disciplined (he has already been reprimanded). They just want the biased e-mails he is widely known to have sent as a public official from a government computer to be located and preserved. Organ wouldn’t speculate on the result of the messages going public at some point; however, the documents he submitted in the lawsuit note that former litigants might ask for new hearings.

Lita Pepion noted Cebull didn’t just slur protected groups; he had their fate in his hands while issuing decisions during decades on the bench. In fall 2012, for example, Cebull nixed expanded voting access on Montana Indian reservations. The plaintiffs appealed, and in 2014 succeeded before another judge. “If Cebull hadn’t been the judge at the start, Montana Indians might have had equal voting rights two years earlier,” Semans said.

RELATED: Montana Native Voters Aren’t Equal—But That’s Not Enough, Says Judge

Pepion pointed to the extreme over-representation of Native people in the Montana prison system, saying “Actions of the federal judiciary have an immediate and personal effect on Native communities and other vulnerable people. This case is about whether our nation understands the negative impacts of bias, and what it will accept.”

 

“This matter goes to the core of our judicial system,” said Organ.

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