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Judge unlikely to face removal for racist message about Obama

By Bill Mears and Moni Basu, CNN
updated 11:41 AM EST, Fri March 2, 2012
Richard Cebull said his conduct in office shows that he is not a racist, but the public got that impression from the e-mail.
Richard Cebull said his conduct in office shows that he is not a racist, but the public got that impression from the e-mail.
STORY HIGHLIGHTS
  • Several groups and lawmakers have called for Richard Cebull's resignation
  • The Montana judge forwarded an insensitive e-mail about President Obama
  • Cebull apologized to Obama and initiated an inquiry on his actions
  • It's rare and difficult to force federal judges from office

(CNN) -- Come this summer, Judge Richard Cebull will be conducting business in a brand new $79 million federal courthouse in Billings, Montana, paid for through President Obama's economic recovery program. That is, if Cebull survives the firestorm engulfing him for forwarding a racist e-mail about the president.

Several advocacy groups and lawmakers have called for Cebull's resignation, but the judge will probably not face any harsh punitive action, said CNN legal analyst Jeffrey Toobin.

It's rare and generally very difficult to force federal judges from office. They receive tenure, and the Constitution guarantees they can remain on the bench during good behavior.

The standards for removal are not clear, beyond a violation of civil or criminal law. Congress would have to initiate impeachment proceedings, but the few judges to face that have usually resigned before an outcome.

"The problem is there is almost no remedy for judicial misconduct except by impeachment by the House and removal by the Senate," Toobin said.

And in Cebull's case, while the e-mail was out of line, it just wasn't enough of a big deal to warrant removal, Toobin said.

"All that can happen is he can be embarrassed," he said.

But he added that Cebull's action was "deeply appalling" and the judge ought to be humiliated by his own behavior.

Cebull admitted he forwarded from his courthouse account a February 20 message he received from his brother.

"Normally I don't send or forward a lot of these, but even by my standards, it was a bit touching," the message said. "I want all of my friends to feel what I felt when I read this. Hope it touches your heart like it did mine.

"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!'"

Obama is of mixed race.

President George W. Bush named the Billings-based judge to the bench in 2001. He has been chief judge since 2008, overseeing two other full-time district judges, three senior or part-time judges and five magistrates.

His chambers have not returned calls from CNN.

Since word of the e-mail became public, Cebull has initiated an ethics complaint against himself and sent Obama a letter of apology.

"I sincerely and profusely apologize to you and your family for the e-mail I forwarded," Cebull wrote to Obama. "I accept full responsibility; I have no one to blame but myself.

"Honestly, I don't know what else I can do. Please forgive me and, again, my most sincere apology."

Cebull told the Billings Gazette that his conduct in court over many years has shown he is not a racist, but he admitted the public got that impression from the e-mail. "And I don't blame them," he said.

The judge also separately told the Great Falls Tribune, "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. I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is. I sent it out because it's anti-Obama."

In his letter to Alex Kozinski, the chief judge for the 9th Circuit Court of Appeals, Cebull said the e-mail became public after it was forwarded further and eventually reached a Great Falls Tribune reporter. Cebull said he was requesting an inquiry as to whether his actions amount to judicial misconduct.

But several advocacy groups and congressional leaders have already called on Cebull to step down from the bench.

"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, president and CEO of the government watchdog group Common Cause. "The message he has acknowledged circulating demonstrates a lack of judicial temperament that ought to disqualify him from further service."

Edgar said Cebull ought to study the Code of Conduct for U.S. Judges, a set of ethical standards published by the U.S. Judicial Conference which calls on judges "to act at all times in a manner that promotes public confidence in the integrity and impartiality of the judiciary."

Canon 5 of the code calls on judges to refrain from political activity.

Travis McAdam, executive director of the Montana Human Rights Network, told the Great Falls Tribune that people had called in or e-mailed their anger over Cebull.

"People are really angry and motivated and wanting to do something," McAdam told the newspaper.

Common Cause has filed a formal ethics complaint with the 9th Circuit. The Montana Human Rights Network plans to do the same.

Toobin said the Cebull case is prickly because Americans take such pride in their judiciary.

"It's very serious," he said. "Federal judges generally have been above reproach. They are the crown jewels of the American judicial system."

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