Judge Richard Cebull

Judge Richard Cebull

Montana’s chief U.S. district judge, Richard Cebull of Billings, will take senior status in March 2013.

Judges on senior status are retired from active service but continue to hear cases, usually with a reduced workload. They also travel around the country to hear cases in other districts.

A notice about Cebull’s position was posted on the U.S. Courts website that lists future judicial vacancies.

Cebull did not respond Thursday to a request for comment.

Cebull, who will be 69 in 2013, is being investigated by a special committee of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals for a racist email about President Barack Obama that he admitted to sending from his work computer to friends in February.

Cebull publicly apologized and asked the appellate for a review of his actions.

At least two organizations, including the Montana Human Rights Network and Common Cause, also filed formal complaints against Cebull. The incident drew national attention and calls by other groups, elected officials and the media to resign.

The Ninth Circuit has not issued a decision in the case.

Michael Keegan, president of People for the American Way, renewed his organization's call for Cebull to step down.

"Cebull may hope that taking senior status before the misconduct review concludes will help him avoid sanction. But he should be held accountable by the 9th Circuit regardless of his status. Taking senior status is a half-measure that allows Cebull to continue hearing cases. He should resign or retire immediately," he said Thursday.

Nominated by President George W. Bush, Cebull was confirmed as a district judge on July 25, 2001. He has served as chief judge of the district since 2008. Last month, Cebull officiated at the dedication of Billings' new, $80 million federal courthouse.

Cebull was a partner in private practice from 1972 to 1997 with Brown, Gerbase, Cebull, Fulton, Harmon & Ross in Billings before becoming a federal magistrate judge in 1998.

Cebull served as a magistrate judge in Great Falls before moving back to Billings when he became a district judge. He was jointly recommended for the lifetime appointment by Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., and then-Sen. Conrad Burns, a Republican.

Born in Billings and raised in the Roundup area, Cebull earned a bachelor's degree at Montana State University in 1966 and a law degree in 1969 from the University of Montana School of Law.

Carl Tobias, a former UM law professor for 20 years now teaching at the University of Richmond's School of Law in Virginia, said Thursday that Cebull's senior status will enable the state, which has so few judges, to get another judge.

When Cebull assumes senior status, a new judge will be appointed and that will increase the state's judicial resources, Tobias said.

Montana has an allotment of three active-duty judges, who are Cebull, U.S. District Judge Sam Haddon of Great Falls and U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen, of Missoula, who was nominated by Obama and confirmed in December 2011.

Montana's senior-status judges are U.S. District Judges Don Molloy of Missoula, Charles Lovell of Helena and Jack Shanstrom of Billings.

Tobias said judges take senior status for a number of reasons and didn't know if the misconduct investigation played a role in Cebull's decision.

Judges are eligible for senior status when they reach the "rule of 80," Tobias said. A judge has to be at least 65 years old and have 15 years of service, which totals 80 years. Cebull would be eligible on his next birthday, he said.

Finding Cebull's replacement won't happen until after the election, Tobias said. A state's senators make the recommendation to the president. 

Baucus, the state's senior senator, will have a substantial say, Tobias said, but a recommendation also depends on the outcome of the presidential election and Montana's senate race between Sen. Jon Tester, a Democrat, and challenger Republican Rep. Denny Rehberg.

In the past, Baucus has appointed a committee of Montana lawyers to search for a replacement whom he can recommend to the president. 

The review "doesn't need to be done quickly. There should be plenty of time," Tobias said.

While Tobias has been away from Montana, he follows the state's legal community and floated a few names and sources as possible candidates.

There is a tradition of recommending magistrate judges, like Shanstrom and Cebull, for the position, Tobias said. U.S. magistrate judges Carolyn Ostby of Billings and Jeremiah Lynch of Missoula could be possibilities, he said.

Montana's Supreme Court judges, including Pat Cotter, whose husband is U.S. Attorney Mike Cotter, also could be considered along with private practice and trial lawyers, Tobias said.

If a woman were recommended and appointed it would be Montana's first female district judge. "It is important to have diversity on the bench," Tobias said.

Missoula lawyer Bill Rossbach, who has participated in complex cases like the Exxon Valdez oil spill lawsuit, would be "another great prospect," Tobias said.

"There should be a good pool of highly qualified people," he said.

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Federal Court, Yellowtone County Reporter

Federal court and county reporter for The Billings Gazette.