HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s chief federal judge apologized for forwarding an email to his friends that contained a joke involving bestiality and President Barack Obama’s mother, but said the incident stemmed from his dislike of the president, not from racism.
Judge Richard Cebull, of Billings, forwarded the email from his chambers to six people on Feb. 20, The Great Falls Tribune reported.
Cebull told the newspaper Wednesday that his brother sent him the email, which he forwarded to “old buddies” and acquaintances. The email was prefaced with the message: “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.”
The judge apologized and acknowledged that the content of the email was racist but said he does not consider himself racist, the newspaper reported. He told the Billings Gazette that he did not write the preface to the message.
He said 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 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 incident prompted calls for Cebull to resign. Bob Edgar, the president and chief executive of Common Cause, said Cebull should step down immediately “if he has any respect for his office and for ideals of equality and human dignity on which our country was founded.”
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.”
It is rare to remove a federal judge from the bench, which usually requires impeachment by the U.S. House of Representatives and confirmation by the Senate.
Travis McAdam, executive director for the Montana Human Rights Network, also said the email’s content was unbecoming of a federal judge.
“It’s one thing if the judge is not a fan of President Barack Obama, but you would think someone in his position would articulate that in a way that criticizes his policy decisions or his position on issues,” McAdam said. “We have a hard time believing that a legitimate criticism of the president involves distributing a joke that basically compares African Americans with animals.”
White House spokesman Jay Carney said during a press briefing Thursday that he did not know whether Obama was aware of Cebull’s email. Carney declined further comment.
Cebull’s dislike of Obama to some extent is a reflection of the view shared by many people in Montana in the state and the backlash to the president’s key policies. A Montana State University-Billings poll last 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.
A recipient of the email forwarded it to another person, who then forwarded it until it eventually reached the inbox of a Great Falls Tribune reporter. Cebull said he was surprised the people he sent the email to would pass it along with his name still on it.
“This is a private thing that was, to say the least, very poor judgment on my part,” Cebull said. “I did not forward it because of the racist nature of it. Although it is racist, I’m not that way, never have been.”