U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals chief judge Alex Kozinski has appointed a special judicial committee to investigate misconduct allegations against Montana chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull.
Cebull in February sent an email from his federal courthouse chambers that contained a racist and misogynistic joke about President Barack Obama's mother.
The subject line of the email, which Cebull sent from his official courthouse email account on Feb. 20 at 3:42 p.m., reads: "A MOM'S MEMORY."
The forwarded text of the joke contained in the email read:
"A little boy said to his mother; 'Mommy, how come I'm black and you're white?' His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!'"
News of the email set of a national firestorm and calls by human rights groups, civil rights leaders and government watchdog groups for Cebull to resign. It also lead to at least three judicial misconduct complaints filed against the judge.
Travis McAdam is director of the Montana Human Rights Network, a Helena-based nonprofit organization that filed an official judicial misconduct complaint against Cebull and circulated a petition calling on Cebull to resign.
McAdam said he was pleased that Kozinski took the step of appointing an investigative committee.
"We're glad to see that the 9th Circuit is taking up this issue, and taking it up in a pretty timely fashion," McAdam said. "We're very glad to see that movement is happening and that the complaint is going to be considered."
In an interview with the Tribune Cebull denied being racist and said he only sent the joke to his friends because he is "not a fan" of the president. The next day he wrote a letter to Obama apologizing to him and his family for the email.
Cebull initiated the judicial complaint process against himself in a in a March1 letter to Kozinski, the day after the news of the email broke.
On March 23 Kozinski appointed a five-judge panel to investigate the complaint.
Judicial misconduct complaints are usually confidential and thus Kozinski's order does not name Cebull. However, Cebull waived his right to privacy when he initiated the complaint and 9th Circuit assistant circuit executive David Madden on Thursday confirmed that Kozinski's order dealt with the Cebull case.
By rule, Kozinski appointed himself, two circuit court judges and two district court judges to the panel. Judge M. Margaret McKeown will the preside over the case.
According to circuit court rules, the judicial committee has the power to subpoena information and it may hold hearings to take testimony and receive other evidence, to hear argument, or both.
Under the rules Cebull has the right to obtain legal counsel for the proceedings. Cebull also has the right to present evidence, call witnesses, and to compel the production of documents.
When the committee completes its investigation it will file a report, including findings and recommendations for council action, with the judicial council.
The president of a Washington, D.C. civil rights and liberties group People For the American Way said he was encouraged that Kozinski formed a panel to investigate the complaints.
“Judge Cebull has shown through his actions that he does not have the necessary temperament to fulfill his duties as a judge," said Michael Keegan, president of People For the American Way.