“Thank God for Judge Gonzales Rogers,” said Blackfeet tribal member Lita Pepion, who sits on the board of Indian People’s Action. Last year, the advocacy group and three more Native plaintiffs sued to ensure that the Ninth Circuit Court of Appeals preserved hundreds of derogatory emails sent by Richard Cebull, a former Montana chief federal judge. Now another federal jurist, U.S. District Court Judge Yvonne Gonzalez Rogers, has ordered the Ninth Circuit to safeguard the messages until January 2019.
In doing so, Judge Gonzalez Rogers wrote, “All judges take an oath to uphold the Constitution and to administer justice impartially.” She affirmed “a presumption of honesty and integrity.” This is not the first time she has staked out this territory. After President Barack Obama nominated her in 2011, she told the Senate Judiciary Committee that a judge “should rule objectively based on the law.” She called “respect” an important part of a judge’s temperament.
Judge Gonzales Rogers’s order goes to the core of our Constitutional rights, said Pepion: “If we are going to call it a ‘justice system,’ it needs to be about justice, not race, money or anything else.”
Though the order does not make the emails public, Indian People’s Action and the other plaintiffs—civil-rights group Four Directions, former Crow chairman Clifford Bird In Ground and Crow tribal member Sara Plains Feather—expect that will occur when they are used re-open cases.
On behalf of the U.S. Attorneys Office, which defended the Ninth Circuit and a federal judicial oversight committee against the Native lawsuit, spokesperson Abraham Simmons maintained that the suit was “meritless.” The government felt that under the law “the petitioners were not entitled to the relief they sought,” according to Simmons.
The plaintiffs’ attorney Lawrence Organ, of the California Civil Rights Law Group, said he wasn’t surprised that the government fought the suit: “There are very powerful people who do not want the judiciary to have the degree of transparency that exists in the other two branches of government.”
The Cebull scandal broke in 2012, after he received at his court email account a message linking bestiality and the late mother of the President of the United States. He forwarded it to recipients he termed “old buddies.” They forwarded it as well, and it eventually ended up in the inbox of Montana reporter John Adams. His story went viral and prompted calls nationwide for investigations and impeachment. The Ninth Circuit, which includes Montana, investigated, then tried to whitewash the situation after Cebull apologized to the President and retired.
In 2014, the federal oversight committee took over and revealed that Cebull had used his office email to send hundreds of “racist, sexist and politically inflammatory” messages to “colleagues” and “court workers.” In them, the judge showed “disdain and disrespect” for American Indians, African Americans, Latinos, gays, some religious faiths, and liberals; he joked disparagingly about women and sexual matters. Neither the committee nor the Ninth Circuit released the emails’ text. Both were close-mouthed about whether they would be preserved; the Native plaintiffs sued to ensure this.
Cebull told investigators, “The public shaming has been a life-altering experience.” ICTMN was unable to reach him for an interview.
Attorney Laughlin McDonald, ACLU Voting Rights Project director emeritus, said that one should be able to file an action challenging a court’s decision on the grounds that it was driven by bias. “Someone who does so should have access to the emails and other related documents,” McDonald said.
According to the judge’s order, the U.S. Attorneys Office has argued that the emails are confidential and protected, while acknowledging separately that they may be able to be used in federal court. Simmons could not confirm for ICTMN whether federal court was the place for suits related to the messages.
Plaintiffs’ attorney Organ is already looking into clearing one individual Cebull sentenced to prison; he expects others will come forward. Citing the public’s right to know, the attorney has also filed a First Amendment claim for the emails on behalf of reporter Adams and a colleague.
Pepion saw the scandal widening as the messages’ content becomes public. “I am anxious to see who laughed, forwarded or commented in a positive way. I think many in Montana are scared right now, because their true feelings will become public and create doubt about their impartiality or ability to do their job.”
Simmons told ICTMN he could not speculate on whether more lawsuits would be filed “if and when additional emails are released.” He said the government has not yet decided whether to appeal; the deadline to file a notice is May 18, 2015. Organ said that if it did file one, he would oppose it.