Missoula Story of the Week: Montana Judge Richard Cebull


A Montana judge’s decision has captured the attention of President Barack Obama this week.

It was not a court ruling, but Chief District Court Judge Richard Cebull’s decision to forward an email to six of his friends that quickly turned into a national embarrassment and resulted in calls for the judge’s resignation.

The email contained what is described by Cebull himself as a “racist” joke about President Barack Obama’s mother. The offensive joke was forwarded from the judge’s work computer and has sparked an outcry for his resignation.

Judge Cebull sent a formal apology to the President and his family in which he stated, “I sincerely and profusely apologize to you and your family for the email I forwarded. I accept full responsibility; I have no one to blame but myself. I can assure you that such action on my part will never happen again.” Despite the apology, it may not be enough to quell calls for him to step down.

According to a USA Today news article, “several human rights groups began circulating petitions calling for Cebull’s resignation,” a statement that highlights the unwanted national attention Cebull’s actions have brought to Montana.

The Missoula County Courthouse

In spite of these condemnations, it is unlikely Judge Cebull will actually be removed from the bench. While the judge’s decision to forward such an objectionable email might be construed as judicial misconduct, CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin speculated that “the judge will probably not face any harsh punitive action.”

Cebull, who was appointed in 2001 to his lifetime position, can be removed for judicial misconduct through impeachment proceedings, a process initiated by the House of Representatives. Toobin went on to say that despite the inappropriate nature of the email, it does not rise to a level warranting such action.

While the racist aspects of Judge Cebull’s actions are despicable, the fact he is taking political sides is also disturbing and leads to even more questions concerning his impartiality. In a Missoulian article, Cebull himself admits that in his role as a judge, “he can’t express in public political preferences.” A judge’s impartiality is necessary to insure rulings are based on the Constitution and not emotional, political, or racial beliefs.

Judge Richard Cebull’s ability to make rulings, which aren’t founded on outside influences may now be in doubt and impair his effectiveness on the bench.

Although it is unlikely Judge Cebull will be removed from his lifetime position, it is possible that he’ll step down in order to end his embarrassment and save what is left of his reputation.


Each week, Tom Diddel recaps the week’s most talked-about story in Missoula. Visit the Make it Missoula News & Opinion section for more talk of the town.


Tom Diddel has lived in Missoula on and off for nearly thirty-eight years. He enjoys skiing, hiking, and many other outdoor activities. He holds a B.A. in English Literature from the University of Montana and is currently working as a Freelance Writer and a Para-Educator.