We mentioned this last night in Non-Sequiturs, but it merits more coverage. Judge Richard F. Cebull, current chief judge for the District of Montana, admitted to forwarding a racially charged joke about President Barack Obama from his courthouse email account. Chief Judge Cebull, a graduate of the University of Montana Law School and a former federal magistrate judge, was appointed to the district court by President George W. Bush in 2001. One of the readers who brought this story to our attention described Cebull as “a good judge.”
A good judge who tells bad jokes. Let’s get to what you all want to know: What was the joke? And was it offensive, or funny, or both?
Here’s what the judge emailed from his chambers email account on February 20 at 3:42 p.m., to seven recipients (including his personal email address):
“Normally I don’t send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.
“A little boy said to his mother; ‘Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?'” the email joke reads. “His mother replied, ‘Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!'”
WOOF. Offensive? Highly. Funny? Definitely not.
(Those are just my opinions; you are free to disagree, of course.)
When contacted by the Great Falls Tribune, which broke the story after a chain of forwards brought the email to its attention, Chief Judge Cebull explained himself as follows: “It was not intended by me in any way to become public. I apologize to anybody who is offended by it, and I can obviously understand why people would be offended.”
In an excess of caution, I’ve characterized the email as “racially charged” (using the language of the Tribune). Some — e.g., the Huffington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and my colleague Elie Mystal — would call the email straight-up “racist.” And, I have to say, the case for calling it racist is fairly strong. It’s more clearly racist than this controversial email, sent out by a Harvard law student a few years ago. Even Judge Cebull himself seems to admit that the email’s content is racist (emphasis added): “The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan. I didn’t send it as racist, although that’s what it is. I sent it out because it’s anti-Obama.”
But Judge Cebull denied that he is a racist himself:
“This is a private thing that was, to say the least, very poor judgment on my part,” Cebull said. “I did not forward it because of the racist nature of it. Although it is racist, I’m not that way, never have been.” ….
“I have never considered myself that way,” Cebull said. “All I can emphasize is I’ve treated people in my courtroom all these years fairly. I don’t think I’ve ever demonstrated racism. Nobody has ever even implied it.”
Well, a whole lot of people are saying that now. Racist is as racist does — or emails?
Right now — it will probably be deleted momentarily — there’s this comment on Judge Cebull’s Wikipedia entry:
Cebull acknowledged that the content of the email was racist, adding that he did not consider himself racist because he hardly ever goes to Klan meetings anymore.
Now that was funny.
UPDATE (3/2/12): Here’s more information about Judge Cebull’s response to the situation.
P.S. What is up with Montana? The Treasure State has been a treasure trove of crazy stories over the years, involving law clerks getting slapped on the butt, unorthodox interior decor for law offices, and bizarre love triangles among attorneys.
Chief U.S. District Judge sends racially charged email about president [Great Falls Tribune via Non-Sequiturs]
Montana judge admits sending racist email about Obama [Los Angeles Times]
Richard Cebull, Montana Federal Judge, Admits Forwarding Racist Obama Email [Huffington Post]
Earlier: Lawsuit of the Day: This Law Clerk Needs Thicker Skin
Montana Lawyers Do Things Differently
An Update on the Managhan Law Firm (aka ‘My Wife Is Sleeping Around and That’s Why We’re No Longer Law Partners’)