Richard Cebull, Montana’s chief U.S. district judge, asked Thursday for a formal judicial review after he admitted to forwarding a racist email joke about President Barack Obama that the judge had received.
The extraordinary action comes one day after Cebull admitted to and apologized for forwarding the email from his work computer to six friends on Feb. 20.
Cebull acknowledged that the email was racist but said he is not a racist and that he sent along the email only because he dislikes Obama politically.
The joke contained content that referred to Obama’s mother and bestiality.
The judge also sent a formal apology to Obama and his family Thursday.
“I accept full responsibility; I have no one to blame but myself,” the judge wrote in the letter.
Cebull wrote that such action would never happen again and that he had requested a judicial review.
“Honestly, I don’t know what else I can do. Please forgive me and, again, my most sincere apology,” Cebull wrote.
In Cebull’s letter seeking the review, the judge said he has “apologized publicly and profusely for my serious mistake and lack of judgment.” He also waived any confidentiality to his request or the proceedings.
Cebull did not return calls seeking comment Thursday.
News of the email triggered calls for Cebull’s resignation from national and Montana organizations and from a former Montana senator.
Cathy A. Catterson, an administrator with the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, based in San Francisco, said in a statement Thursday afternoon: “Chief District Judge Cebull has publicly acknowledged that he has acted inappropriately. By a letter to Chief Judge Alex Kozinski of the Ninth Circuit, Judge Cebull has initiated the process by which a complaint of judicial misconduct will be brought against him.”
Kozinski has notified the circuit’s judicial council of the complaint, and the council is expected “to act expeditiously in investigating and resolving this matter,” Catterson said.
Common Cause, a nonpartisan government watchdog group, also filed a formal complaint against Cebull with the 9th Circuit. The organization accused the judge of violating federal judicial canons and of conduct “prejudicial to the effective and expeditious administration of the business of the courts.”
“If he has any respect for his office and for ideals of equality and human dignity on which our country was founded, Judge Cebull will step down today,” Bob Edgar, president of the Washington, D.C.-based group, said in a prepared statement.
Cebull’s actions violate codes of conduct for U.S. judges, which include acting in manner that “promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary” and refraining from political activity, Edgar said.
The canons are ethical standards published by the U.S. Judicial Conference to guide federal district and appellate court judges.
“We’re sending our letter to every member of Congress to bring this to their attention,” said Mary Boyle, a communications spokeswoman for Common Cause.
Cebull could be impeached or censured, Boyle said, and Common Cause supports impeachment.
Former U.S. Sen. John Melcher, a Democrat, also said Cebull should resign.
“This is so untypical of Montanans’ attitude. He’s disgraced us. It’s a reflection on everybody in Montana,” Melcher said from his Missoula home.
While calling Cebull’s apology “a step in the right direction,” Melcher said the judge has insulted the president as well as wives and mothers.
“He’s a leading federal judge in Montana. This is a big mistake for a judge,” Melcher said. “I suspect he won’t quit, but I wish he would. I think he should.”
Jed Link, U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg’s spokesman, said the congressman talked to Cebull on Thursday afternoon and expressed his concern about the matter.
“Judge Cebull apologized, and Denny took his apology to be heartfelt and sincere,” Link said.
Rehberg also thought Cebull’s letter and request for review were necessary and appropriate, Link said.
Andrea Helling, a spokeswoman for U.S. Sen. Jon Tester, D-Mont., said on Thursday, “Jon is concerned by the situation because it calls into question the lack of judgment by a federal judge.”
U.S. Sen. Max Baucus, a Democrat, said in a statement: “Like many Montanans, I read the story with disappointment. The email Judge Cebull forwarded was racist, degrading to women and nothing that should be repeated or shared.”
The Montana Human Rights Network said Cebull should step down and had collected about 250 signatures on a petition it posted on its website. The petition calls for Cebull’s resignation.
Travis McAdam, Montana Human Rights Network’s executive director, said Cebull had violated not only codes of conduct but also the public’s trust. Women and people of color, he said, would have legitimate reason to wonder if they would be treated fairly in his court.
“If nothing else, he has created a perception that he might not be fair,” McAdam said.
The Montana State Bar also said it was concerned and that people could file complaints with the 9th Circuit.
“The email was inappropriate. We understand why people are disturbed,” said Shane Vannatta, president of the organization. “The integrity of the judicial system and process is important to the State Bar of Montana. We want the public to be able to respect and trust our judicial system.”
Other groups calling for Cebull’s resignation include People for the American Way and The Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights, a coalition of 200 national organizations that promotes civil rights.
The story was run by news organizations across the country, including National Public Radio, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, Politico, the Huffington Post, USA Today and the Seattle Post-Intelligencer.
Cebull was a federal magistrate based in Great Falls when he was nominated for the judgeship by President George W. Bush in 2001. He had been recommended jointly by Baucus and then-Sen. Conrad Burns. Cebull has served as chief judge since 2008 and is based in the Billings division.
The Administrative Office of the U.S. Courts in Washington, D.C., clarified the process in place to address judicial complaints.
Dick Carelli, from the agency’s Office of Public Affairs, said anyone can file a complaint against a federal judge with the chief judge of the circuit in which the judge works.
The chief judge has the authority to review and dismiss complaints as lacking merit or refer them to a council of circuit judges for review.
The council has a broad range of options, from dismissing complaints to referring them to a board of judges with the Judicial Conference, which is a policy-making board for the judiciary. The conference could recommend impeachment or issue a variety of other disciplinary measures, Carelli said.