Judge Richard Cebull is in the news again, denying the motion of disadvantaged and geographically isolated Native Americans to have equal access to early voting and late registration as white voters. While this case seems to have nothing to do with his notoriously racist comments and openly expressed political opposition to the current administration, it also cannot be seen in isolation from those infamous actions.
As reported by the Associated Press:
Fifteen Indians from the remote Crow, Northern Cheyenne and Fort Belknap reservations argued in a lawsuit filed earlier this month that the long distances they must drive for early voting and late registration leaves them disadvantaged compared to white voters.
But U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull said regardless of whether voting discrimination exists, the plaintiffs did not show they were unable to vote for the candidates of their choice.
"I'm not arguing that the opportunity is equal for Indian persons as it is to non-Indians," Cebull said. "Because of poverty, because of the lack of vehicles and that sort of thing, it's probably not equal. However, you have to prove ... that they can't elect candidates of their choice."
Plaintiff and Fort Belknap tribal council member Edward Moore, Jr. said he and his neighbors in the town of Hayes have to travel more than 120 miles roundtrip to vote early in person at the county courthouse in Chinook. That costs money for gas and requires time off from work — hurdles that are magnified in a community with high poverty levels and where many don't have vehicles.
Even if Cebull was right on the law, his ruling against the Native Americans is tainted. We respect judges because we trust they will hear our cases fairly and, if we have a legal right that is being violated, restore that right to us. A judge does not have to be liked, but he should be trusted by the entire community.
Unfortunately, Cebull's racist conduct and openly expressed partisan beliefs prevent him from being such a trusted judge. In a case with clear political repercussions affecting the rights of minority communities, Cebull's behavior makes it impossible to have confidence that his decision is based on the law and not his own prejudices. His infamous conduct inevitably calls into question his ability to make decisions that will be respected by all as fair and unbiased, based on an honest reading of the law. It cannot be helped. The genie cannot be put back in the bottle, and people cannot pretend he did not do and say what we know he did and said.
Even if he handles every case completely without bias, Cebull's ability to be respected as a fair and just judge has been lost. His actions and statements put a cloud on his rulings and eat away at the legitimacy of the court.