A federal appellate judge in Philadelphia who filed a complaint against former U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull — and then pushed for public release of a report on Cebull — said he was pleased with the investigation into a racist email that Cebull admitted forwarding from his work account.
“I was very satisfied with it — not only pleased but proud of the response,” said 3rd U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals Chief Judge Theodore A. McKee in an interview Monday.
“We have to demonstrate we are capable of policing ourselves. I think the public should feel very good about it,” McKee said.
McKee, who doesn't know Cebull, got involved after reading newspaper accounts of Cebull forwarding from his office computer a racist email joke about President Obama.
McKee said he filed his complaint with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals because he was concerned by what he had read.
“That’s all the information I had. I felt duty-bound to do something. I thought it required further inquiry,” McKee said.
The probe began in 2012 with a misconduct investigation of Cebull by the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit, which includes Montana.
The case ended recently when a federal review panel ordered the public release of the council’s report, which reprimanded Cebull and disclosed that he had sent hundreds of inappropriate emails, in addition to the one that had been made public.
McKee pursued the release of the council’s initial order of March 15, 2013, after the council decided not to release it.
The council issued a shorter version, noting that Cebull had retired in the meantime and saying that the complaints therefore were moot. The revised report omitted information about other emails Cebull had sent.
McKee appealed that decision to the Committee on Judicial Conduct and Disability of the Judicial Conference of the United States. McKee argued that the council’s ruling “effectively conceals the judicial misconduct that previously had been identified and detailed.”
The national-level conference ruled in McKee’s favor and ordered the report’s release on Jan. 17.
McKee filed his formal complaint against Cebull on March 6, 2012, and Cebull filed a complaint against himself.
Ten others also filed complaints, but the council did not include them in its review, saying they were based “solely on public reports” and that they didn’t offer “any firsthand information.”
The 9th Circuit council, McKee said, contacted him before it filed its initial report, asking if he had any other knowledge of the case.
McKee said Monday he had no firsthand information, had not received any of Cebull’s emails and didn’t know Cebull.
Although McKee waived his right to confidentiality in the proceedings, the 9th Circuit declined a request by The Gazette for a copy of McKee’s complaint.
David Madden, assistant circuit executive, said rules state that material from misconduct proceedings may be made public with consent from the subject judge and the chief judge. Cebull, he said, has not given his consent to the release of McKee’s complaint and therefore the circuit could not release it.
McKee also declined to release his complaint.
McKee, from Rochester, N.Y., was nominated to the 3rd Circuit by President Bill Clinton and received his commission in 1994. McKee has served as chief judge since 2010.
The investigation began after news media reported that Cebull had forwarded a racist joke about Obama from his work computer to several individuals in February 2012. Cebull apologized in a letter to Obama.
The incident triggered national controversy with members of Congress, human rights and civil rights organizations calling for Cebull to resign.
McKee said he was surprised to learn that Cebull had sent hundreds of inappropriate emails. He declined to say whether he thought all of the emails should be released to the public.
The council’s initial report reviewed four years of Cebull’s personal correspondence sent from his court email account and found he had sent hundreds of inappropriate emails to personal and professional contacts. The emails, the report said, showed disdain for blacks, Indians, Hispanics, women, religions and included jokes about sexual orientation.
Many of the emails involved topics that could have come before Cebull’s court, such as immigration, gun control, civil rights, health care and environmental issues, the council found in its order of March 15, 2013.
The report also noted that the investigation found no evidence of bias in Cebull’s rulings or sentences and that witnesses generally viewed him as a “good and honest trial lawyer and an esteemed trial judge.”
The order included a public reprimand and directed Cebull to accept no new cases for 180 days; to complete training on judicial ethics, racial awareness and elimination of bias; and to issue a second public apology.
Impeachment was unwarranted because Cebull didn’t break any laws, the report said. But two of the judges on the council said they would have asked Cebull to retire voluntarily.
Two weeks later, Cebull announced he would fully retire on May 3, and the sanctions were never enacted.
Cebull was nominated to the lifetime appointment by President George W. Bush and received his commission in 2001. He served as chief judge of the Montana district from 2008 until 2013.