By ADRIAN JAWORT = For The Outpost
To the blacks, minorities and mixed-race people in the Not In Our Town audience – which numbered approximately 20 of the 50 or so people in attendance at the Downtown Montana State University Billings campus last week – the issue was not merely a typical, politically driven “liberal vs. conservative” issue. It was about how the top federal judge in Montana potentially feels about them personally.
Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull forwarded an email joke about President Obama – who has a white mother and black father – that stated, “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!’”
Attendees were not naïve about the realities of tasteless jokes being passed around the internet, but Cebull’s email began with, “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.”
That struck a resounding nerve about what Cebull’s true implications were to many of those in attendance.
NIOT Chairman Eran Thompson said that although the group wanted Cebull to resign, they also wanted to hear Cebull supporters’ side, and hoped to come to a community understanding.
However, he admitted as a person of mixed-race with a black father and white mother like Obama, he took Cebull’s email very personally.
“What I feel happened is, this judge called my mother a whore,” Thompson said. “And he called me and my father an animal. This wasn’t about the president, this wasn’t about somebody’s policies, this was about not liking someone because of the color of their skin, and making judgments based on that.”
An emotional Thompson explained how his 13-year-old son asked about the Cebull incident after he saw it on the news, and how he had no answers to why Cebull was still in power if he held such views, and why he’s gotten away with it.
The story initially broke after one of the recipients of the email forwarded it to the Great Falls Tribune in late February. The story has since made national news.
From a judicial standpoint, Thompson noted, “Now any person of color - or woman – that sits in front of that judge, that has a decision or punishment handed down, has immediate grounds for appeal. That’s just going to waste us more money, time and energy.”
Several former government employees pointed out if they had used their government computers or email addresses to convey any personal messages – not to mention “jokes about people of color” – it would be grounds for termination.
An anonymous letter from a federal employee was read aloud, and it noted that other federal employees have been fired for offenses similar to Cebull’s email. The code for judges is even stricter.
“Federal judges are supposed to be seen as nonpartisan. Perception is everything. Judge Cebull has shattered the perception of an impartial, non-partisan judge,” the letter said.
The Code of Conduct for Judicial Employees states: “A judicial employee should not engage in any activities that would put into question the propriety of the judicial employee’s conduct in carrying out the duties of the office,” and “A judicial employee should refrain from partisan political activity.”
Although Cebull apologized and claimed his joke wasn’t racially but politically motivated, a woman from Hardin who described herself as multi-racial said it was the statement before the joke that made Cebull’s motives clear.
“He can apologize, he can say ‘I’m sorry I sent this onward,’ but he sent it onward because of what was in his ‘heart.’ And he insulted every female, and especially every female who would step out of her race and love someone of another race,” she said.
Obama’s mother died of ovarian cancer in 1994.
“It wasn’t just that he’s racist, he’s anti-female,” she said. “He said if she moves out of her race, her morality is worse than a dog’s, because the jokes last words were, ‘Be glad that you don’t bark.’”
As a community volunteer who strives to make Billings a better place for her daughter and everyone else, NIOT vice chairman Crystal Rondeaux said she literally cried when the Cebull story broke.
“I find that so hurtful because it goes against everything I work for and everything I stand for,” she said. “All the work that I do, all the people that I talk too, all the volunteering that I can do to make my community better, was just wiped away by his one joke,” Rondeaux said. “It was just taken away from me, and I think the only honorable thing Cebull can do right now is resign.”
Rondeaux is also a Crow tribal member, and Montana tribal members who commit alleged felonies often fall under Cebull’s federal jurisdiction. The Crow Nation wants Cebull impeached, Rondeaux said, but she is reluctant to have Congress involved in judicial processes even though she also no longer has faith in Cebull’s abilities to judge minorities or women.
The Rev. Steve Gordon of the Mayflower Congregational United Church of Christ was perplexed that in Montana’s recent atmosphere, where a beloved teacher was killed in Sidney, where hate groups are surfacing – and a Ku Klux Klan affiliated group recently send a newsletter to Montana legislators who aim to “create a white homeland in the Northwest” – Cebull could be so insensitive and seemingly clueless about the implications of his email.
A black retired Navy man, Robert Brown, said he always bragged about being from Billings. He even carried around his birth certificate to show people who doubted there were even blacks from Montana. Brown said he was proud to have Montana values, where people were judged on their worth. With someone like Cebull representing Montana, he can’t say that’s true anymore.
There have been expressions of support for Cebull in letters to the editors of newspapers, internet comment sections - the Great Falls Tribune said in two days of an “unscientific vote” asking if Cebull should resign, some 42 percent of 1,200 voters said he shouldn’t – and people contacting NIOT’s Thompson saying they supported Cebull. But only two people expressed verbal support of Cebull keeping his job at the NIOT meeting.
One man noted that as a person of Irish descent, he’s often heard jokes directed at him that he could’ve been offended by, but wasn’t. Although he was sympathetic to claims of racism, he said Cebull apologized sincerely, and we should also note his work and overall record as a “good judge” before condemning him fully.
A woman said Cebull has been unfairly “crucified,” noted whites have often been discriminated against, and mentioned that comedian Bill Maher has said just as offensive things about Sarah Palin.
However, the original joke the controversy stems from makes no mention of Obama. If the joke was left without his name attached, would defenders be so eager to claim that condemnation of Cebull’s actions were politically motivated?
Robin Allen, a black pastor at Wayman’s Chapel in Billings, is a newcomer to Billings. She said locals are pleasant for the most part, but noted about Cebull’s indiscretion, “He doesn’t even have to like Obama. That’s a choice, and everyone has that choice. But to smear his name based on race and to think ‘it’s touching,’ that is terrible.”
About the whistleblower who sent the email to the Great Falls Tribune, the racially mixed woman from Hardin said, “They sent it on because they wanted the state of Montana to know, ‘Look people, this is what your judicial system is looking like in 2012. It’s up to you as citizens of the state of Montana to do something about it.’ And this is why we’re here: to do something about it.”