I recently criticized The Good Wife for its portrayal of judges as arrogant and pompous fools and idiots, so you might suspect that if fictitious judges upset me, a real federal judge sending a racist email against President Obama would put me over the top, and it did.
The content of the email was not even borderline racist; even the judge acknowledged it as being so. The New York Times describes the forwarded joke "as involving suggestions of bestiality and the president's mother." Although admitting and recognizing its nature, Judge Richard F. Cebull (Montana) suggests that his motives were political in nature rather than racist, and to his credit, apologized to the president and invited an investigation.
But what next? The facts are undisputed. The email was racist; its content despicable. It was forwarded by a sitting federal judge, indeed the chief judge of the district. Is this a wrong that can be righted by an apology? The judge was engaged in a form of political activity in which he should not have been. Judges should not be expressing their political views or opposition to the president particularly through government channels. Judges should not participate in partisan politics. Added to that is the out-and-out bigotry of the email. Even accepting the judge's claim that he forwarded the email for its political (anti-Obama views) rather than its racist content, he condoned it.
But even accepting the judge's apology, his motive and explanation, can he remain on the court? Part of me feels sympathy for him. Because of this single, stupid mistake, his judicial career may be over. On the other hand, lawyers and litigants, both past and present, may wonder whether or not this incident reflects a more deep-seated bigotry and prejudice -- both political and racial. Has it or will it affect decisions made or to be made? My objection to judicial elections and contributions to judicial candidates by lawyers and litigants has always been, not only the risk of actual influence, but the perception of it by the public. The question is not whether or not the judge is a racist, but whether or not he is or will be perceived as one.
There is talk of hearings and possible impeachment proceedings, but this is not an issue to be decided by others. Judge Cebull should decide what is best for the judiciary and the public's perception of it. The past is undisputed. The future is his to make.