Former Montana Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull will fully retire on May 3, according to a statement published on the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals’ website on Tuesday.
Cebull, who stepped down from full active service on March 18 to take senior status, was under investigation by a special committee of the 9th Circuit after he sent a racist email from his court chambers about President Barack Obama. The email contained a “joke” that implied that Obama’s mother had sex with a dog.
After the Great Falls Tribune uncovered the email Cebull admitted to sending it and later publicly apologized. Cebull subsequently asked 9th Circuit Chief Judge Alex Kozinski to initiate an investigation into whether his transmittal of the email constituted misconduct under the Judicial Conduct and Disability Act.
Kim Abbott, of the Montana Human Rights Network, welcomed the news that Cebull would be fully stepping down next month. The network last year filed an official judicial misconduct complaint against Cebull and circulated a petition calling on the judge to resign.
“We filed the complaint because we believed the email Cebull sent called into question his ability to perform his duties impartially and he did violate judicial conduct rules,” Abbott said Wednesday. “We’re happy that Montanans will be able to appear before a different judge, because Montanans deserve fairness. Women and people of color would have valid concerns appearing before judge Cebull.”
According to the statement published on the 9th Circuit’s website, the special committee conducted “a thorough and extensive investigation, interviewed numerous witnesses, considered voluminous documentation, including emails, and conducted an interview with Judge Cebull.”
The special committee submitted its report to the 9th Circuit Judicial Council in December 2012 and on March 15, 2013 the council issued an order and memorandum. According to the 9th Circuit the findings of the investigation and the court’s order reamin confidential during the appeal period, and the council will have no further statement until Cebull’s retirement is effective.
Cebull’s retirement comes as the U.S. Senate is considering nominations to fill the Montana federal bench seats vacated by Cebull and District Judge Sam Haddon, of Great Falls, who went on senior status on Dec. 31, 2012. Chief District Judge Dana Christensen, of Missoula, is the only active federal judge in Montana.
Last month Montana Sen. Max Baucus sent a letter to President Barack Obama nominating state Supreme Court Justice Brian Morris and Yellowstone County District Court Judge Susan Watters to fill the two vacancies.
University of Richmond Law Professor Carl Tobias, a former University of Montana Law Professor and an expert on the federal courts, said the Senate needs to move quickly on to avoid a federal caseload bottleneck in Montana.
“This just steps up the urgency of moving the candidates forward and having them nominated and seating them on the bench,” Tobias said. “You’re now nailed down to one active judge, who’s also a chief judge, and he’s in Missoula trying to run the court as well as his own caseload.”
Tobias called the situation in Montana urgent and said its critical that Baucus push for a speedy confirmation process in the U.S. Senate. Tobias said Obama’s federal judicial nominations are taking an average of seven months to be confirmed. Tobais said Baucus should approach ranking Senate judiciary committee Republican Sen. Chuck Grassley, of Iowa, and push for an expedited confirmation process.
“I can’t see them getting confirmed before the summer, and that’s optimistic,” Tobias said.