Montana's Senior Federal Judge Crosses the Line

The true test of a man's character is what he does when no one is watching. -- Coach John Wooden

Few of us outside his home state of Montana had heard of federal Judge Richard Cebull until he spectacularly failed the legendary Coach Wooden's test this week. In spreading a vile and racist "joke" about President Obama, Judge Cebull disgraced himself and demonstrated his unfitness for the bench. He has apologized, as he should, but that's not enough.

With the whole country watching, the judge now faces another test of character; he can pass it only by resigning his office.

I'll not repeat the message Cebull shared via email with a handful of friends. It's sufficient to say that it slurred the president and his mother and compared African-Americans to dogs. The judge has acknowledged that it was racist but insists he is not; he shared the email with some of his friends because he disagrees with the president's politics, he insists.

Judge Cebull's offense probably does not qualify as the sort of "high crime or misdemeanor" the Constitution sets out as grounds for impeachment. But it clearly and disgustingly violates a judge's obligation to put politics aside and to avoid any conduct that undermines public confidence in what the federal Canons of Judicial Ethics call "the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary." Because the judge's conduct so clearly crosses the line, Common Cause filed a formal complaint against him today with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals.

And even if impeachment is off the table, there's a test here for Congress too. The men and women who put Cebull on the bench have a responsibility to quickly condemn him and to make clear to his fellow judges that such conduct will not be tolerated.