Judge who forwarded racist email to step down

Judge Richard Cebull./ Photo: AP/Billings Gazette, James Woodcock
Judge Richard Cebull./ Photo: AP/Billings Gazette, James Woodcock

HELENA, Mont. — A judge who forwarded a racist joke involving President Barack Obama plans to take a reduced caseload starting next year and step down as the chief federal judge for Montana, a U.S. Courts spokeswoman said Thursday.

U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull of Billings will take senior status March 18, courts spokeswoman Karen Redmond said.

That will create a vacancy about a year after Cebull asked the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals to open an investigation into his conduct over the email that included a joke about bestiality and Obama’s mother. Cebull requested the probe after news about the email became public.

That investigation is not complete and may not be related to Cebull’s decision, 9th Circuit spokesman David Madden said. It is not unusual for a judge to take senior status when he is eligible to do so, Madden said.

“You have this issue out here, and I can see how people would want to relate it, but there are a lot of other factors in play,” Madden said.

Cebull did not return a call to his chambers Thursday.

A judge can take senior status when he or she is 65 or older and has at least 15 years on the bench. A judge with senior status takes a reduced caseload but still draws a salary and can keep a staff of four.

Cebull will vacate his position as chief judge for the state and allow the president to appoint a replacement. That is one of the benefits of senior status: it means adding a judge to the state, Madden said.

Cebull previously admitted he forwarded the email to a half-dozen people Feb. 20 after receiving it from his brother, telling The Great Falls Tribune newspaper that he did so because he disliked Obama, not from racism.

After the story surfaced, Cebull wrote Obama a letter of apology and asked the federal appellate court to investigate his conduct.

Two groups also demanded an investigation. One of them, the Montana Human Rights Network, started an online petition calling for Cebull’s resignation, writing that “this behavior is simply not befitting of a judge.”

People For the American Way, another group demanding that Cebull step down, said Thursday it is not enough for the judge to take senior status. The group called on Cebull to resign or retire immediately.

Madden said a special panel investigating the matter has met several times. Cebull’s decision should not affect the panel’s work, he said.

“I believe that they will conclude their investigation,” Madden said.

Cebull was a Billings attorney for nearly 30 years before becoming a U.S. magistrate in Great Falls in 1998.

He was nominated by former President George W. Bush and received his commission in 2001. Cebull has served as chief judge of the District of Montana since 2008.

Cebull blocked the reopening of the U.S. border to cattle in 2005, two years after the United States banned Canadian cattle and beef products over fears of mad-cow disease. Cebull granted the injunction to U.S. ranchers who wanted to keep the ban in place, but the 9th Circuit overturned that decision and the border was reopened two months later.

More recently, Cebull presided over a lawsuit filed by landowners against Exxon Mobil Corp. over the cleanup following last year’s pipeline spill of 1,500 gallons into the Yellowstone River. That case is pending.

— Associated Press