SHOULD A single joke, even a deeply, shockingly insensitive one, doom an entire career? Even if it’s merely forwarded on a computer, rather than spoken aloud? A good answer is: only if biases expressed in the joke are reflected in a broader assessment of the joke-teller. That’s why Congress should investigate Chief US District Judge Richard Cebull of Montana, who admitted to passing along a joke whose punchline suggested President Obama was fathered by a dog. Criminal defendants, victims, and litigants need to know that they are being viewed fairly, as individuals, when they come before this judge.
Cebull, a former US magistrate judge who was appointed to the district court by President George W. Bush in 2001, acknowledged on Wednesday that he had forwarded the e-mail and told Montana reporters yesterday that he was sorry: “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.’’
Congress shouldn’t take him at his word. Federal judges normally cannot be fired, but they can be impeached, through a process that resembles that of removing a president from office. Politics shouldn’t have a place in this process. Congress should act instead as an employer assessing whether Cebull can fairly perform the job to which he’s assigned. That means treating everyone who comes before his court in a equal manner, and handling cases without prejudice. If an independent investigator can find no persuasive complaints of bias on Cebull’s behalf, then Congress can safely assume that Cebull’s decision to forward the joke was a terrible lapse in judgment.
Cebull acknowledged that he is “not a fan’’ of Obama’s. But it’s shocking that a federal judge would allow his political passions to flow in such a childish and demeaning direction. Whether or not he deserves to be removed from office, Cebull has embarrassed his court and the entire federal judiciary.