Indian country has responded with anger, dismay and a degree of “we knew it all along” to a federal judicial-oversight panel’s revelations about hundreds of biased emails sent by Montana’s former chief district court judge, Richard Cebull.
Lita Pepion, Blackfeet, of Indian People’s Action, in Billings, Montana, called for the emails to be released in their entirety, not merely described in general terms. The federal courts hear many Native American matters because of the relationship of the tribal nations to the United States, according to Pepion: “We need to know exactly what was said. Actions of the federal judiciary have an immediate and personal effect on Native communities. We already know Native men and women are very much over-represented in federal prison population. And that means children growing up without their parents, and families sentenced to a life of poverty. Bias destroys our communities.”
Tom Rodgers, the Blackfeet president of Carlyle Consulting and whistleblower in the Jack Abramoff scandal, agreed, saying, “Only when we see the emails will we be able to begin restoring trust in the justice system.”
Pepion also wanted to compare Cebull’s actions when dealing with similar allegations against Native and non-Native defendants. “We need to look at patterns in his treatment of civil matters, such as the Native voting-rights case he recently dismissed, Wandering Medicine v. McCulloch,” she said.
Judges from the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals, who investigated the Cebull controversy, claimed they’d analyzed his decisions from the bench and found them to be in line with those of other federal judges. The Ninth Circuit is the federal court system for the nine westernmost states, including Montana.
Pepion did not find that reassuring. “In that case, we need to look at not just Cebull, but all federal judges, drilling down and comparing disposition of Native and non-Native cases of all types,” she said. She added that Indian People’s Action will submit a bill to the Montana legislature for such a study in that state.
“Only when we have that information—and the emails—will justice be served,” said Rodgers.
The scandal erupted in February 2012, when Cebull sent an email containing a vile sexual reference to President Obama’s late mother. It was forwarded and ended up at The Great Falls Tribune; the story went national, with innumerable calls for Cebull’s resignation or impeachment. A committee of Ninth Circuit judges investigated and found hundreds of questionable messages.
Some emails showed “disdain and disrespect for African Americans, Native Americans and Hispanics.” Others concerned “sexual topics and were disparaging of women,” while yet more contained indiscreet homophobic, religious and political content, according to the judges’ March 2012 report, which the federal oversight panel has just published.
Though Indian country has an intense interest in this matter, with ICTMN coverage and the associated Facebook page generating many impassioned responses, the nation’s largest papers have also carried the story. A thorough article in the Los Angeles Times sparked a long, spirited back-and-forth on its discussion pages.
American Civil Liberties Union attorney Laughlin McDonald guessed there might be motions to revisit some of Judge Cebull’s decisions. McDonald hoped the controversy would end up increasing federal judges’ sensitivity to racial discrimination. “It underscores the need for federal judges to apply the law equally,” said McDonald. “It also underscores the fact that racial bias is a continuing fact of life, even in our federal judicial system.”