U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull, the former chief judge in Montana who filed a complaint against himself last year after acknowledging that he sent a racist email about President Obama, has announced plans to retire by May 3.
Cebull’s move came after the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Ninth Circuit’s Judicial Council issued its final order on March 15 regarding discipline against him. According to a formal statement by Ninth Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski, the order will remain sealed pending the appeal process.
The Judicial Council received a report in December from a special committee that "conducted a thorough and extensive investigation, interviewed numerous witnesses, considered voluminous documentation, including emails, and conducted an interview with Judge Cebull," Kozinski said.
Cebull, 69, wrote to the Ninth Circuit about his retirement plans on March 29, about one week after he assumed senior status. He was nominated by President Bush in 2001 and was named chief judge of Montana in 2008.
Numerous members of Congress and advocacy groups had called upon him to resign after the email became public. Common Cause and the Montana Human Rights Network, for instance, filed complaints with the Ninth Circuit.
Cebull sent the email to family and friends in February of last year from his work computer with the subject line "A Mom’s Memory." The text said: "A little boy said to his mother, ‘Mommy, how come I’m black and you’re white?’ His mother replied, ‘Don’t even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you’re lucky you don’t bark!"
The email was first reported on February 29 by the Great Falls Tribune. Cebull apologized via that publication and The Billings Gazette, acknowledging that the email was racist but insisting that he was not.
He said it was intended as an "anti-Obama" joke.
"There’s no doubt it’s racist," he told the Gazette. "It wasn’t forwarded for that purpose. If anything, it was political."
By filing a complaint against himself on March 1 of last year, Cebull initiated the Judicial Council’s investigation into whether his actions constituted misconduct under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act. He faced potential discipline ranging from a public reprimand to impeachment. The Judicial Council also could have dismissed the complaint or declined to recommend discipline, opting instead for admonishment or a public apology.
The Ninth Circuit would have no further comment until Cebull’s retirement becomes effective, said David Madden, assistant circuit executive.
Cebull, a 1969 graduate of the University of Montana School of Law, was a partner at Brown, Gerbase, Cebull, Fulton, Harman & Ross in Billings from 1972 to 1997. He served as a U.S. magistrate judge in Montana from 1998 to 2001.
Cebull’s departure leaves an emergency situation in Montana, where every federal judge but one has gone on senior status. "It’s an extreme emergency," said Carl Tobias, a professor at the University of Richmond School of Law and former professor at the University of Montana School of Law. "There’s only one active judge, and he’s been there a year, and he’s the chief judge, Dana Christensen."
Tobias said the district has three authorized judgeships. Last month, U.S. Senator Max Baucus (D-Mont.) recommended two people to fill vacancies: Montana Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris and Susan Watters, a judge in Montana’s 13th Judicial District Court in Yellowstone County.
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