HELENA — An appellate court will conduct a judicial misconduct review of Montana's chief federal judge, who sent an email to friends that contained a racist joke involving bestiality and President Barack Obama's mother.
Judge Richard Cebull also plans to send Obama a formal apology, but that has not stopped calls for the judge's resignation.
"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," said Bob Edgar, the president and chief executive of Common Cause.
Common Cause filed a complaint Thursday against Cebull with the U.S. 9th Circuit Court of Appeals. Cebull also asked for a review by the appellate court, effectively filing a complaint against himself.
The appellate court's judicial council will lead the investigation and "is expected to act expeditiously," court executive Cathy Catterson said in a statement.
Cebull's apology plans were confirmed by Jed Link, a spokesman for U.S. Rep. Denny Rehberg, who spoke by phone with Cebull.
"Judge Cebull apologized and Denny took his apology to be heartfelt and sincere. Judge Cebull also indicated that he is sending a formal apology to President Obama and that he is asking the 9th Circuit to review the matter," Link said.
Cebull on Wednesday admitted that he forwarded the email Feb. 20, but he told The Great Falls Tribune newspaper that he did so because he disliked Obama, not from racism.
Cebull told the newspaper that his brother sent him the email, and he passed it on to six "old buddies" and acquaintances. It began with the preface: "Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching. I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine."
Cebull told the Billings Gazette that he did not write that preface. He said that he has treated all people in his courtroom fairly and he has not heard any complaints otherwise.
"The only reason I can explain it to you is I am not a fan of our president, but this goes beyond not being a fan," Cebull told the Great Falls newspaper. "I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. I sent it out because it's anti-Obama."
Cebull did not return calls from The Associated Press.
The Montana Human Rights Network has started an online petition in its website calling for Cebull's resignation, writing "this behavior is simply not befitting of a judge."
Congress can remove a federal judge for misconduct by impeachment in the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate confirmation, but such action is rare.
State Bar of Montana president Shane Vannatta called the email inappropriate and said he understands why people are disturbed.
"We want the public to be able to respect and trust our judicial system," Vannatta said in a statement.
According to the 9th Circuit's rules on misconduct proceedings, the judicial council can dismiss the complaint if it is found to be inappropriate or if corrective action has been taken.
Otherwise, the counsel has the ability to censure or reprimand the judge, order that no new cases be assigned to him for a designated period of time, or ask the judge to retire.
The council may also refer the matter to the Judicial Conference of the United States if the conduct may constitute grounds for impeachment.
Assistant Circuit Executive David Madden said he does not believe a dismissal is likely in Cebull's case because the complaint was self-initiated.
Madden also said that he expects Cebull to remain on the bench while the complaint is being reviewed.
White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing Thursday that he did not know whether Obama was aware of Cebull's email.
Cebull's dislike of Obama reflects some Montanans' views of the president and the backlash to his key policies. A Montana State University-Billings poll in October found that Obama had a 32 percent approval rating in the state, and only 21 percent thought he was doing a good job managing the economy.
Cebull was a Billings attorney for nearly 30 years, specializing in medical malpractice work. He became the U.S. magistrate in Great Falls in 1998, and then received a bipartisan recommendation from Montana Sens. Max Baucus, a Democrat, and Conrad Burns, a Republican, to replace U.S. District Judge Jack Shanstrom.
Cebull was nominated by former President George W. Bush and received his commission in 2001. He has served as chief judge of the District of Montana since 2008.