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Federal judge in Montana criticized over racist Obama joke

MISSOULA, Montana (Reuters) - A federal judge in Montana who used official court email to circulate a racist joke about President Barack Obama has acknowledged the indiscretion and initiated a misconduct complaint against himself, court officials said on Thursday.

The scandal prompted government ethics watchdog group Common Cause and the Montana Human Rights Network to call on Thursday for the resignation of the Billings-based judge, Richard Cebull, the chief judge for the U.S. judicial district in Montana.

The email in question came to public light when it was published on Wednesday by the Great Falls Tribune, which received a copy forwarded to the newspaper by someone else in the chain of the email's distribution.

The subject line of the two-paragraph email, sent from Cebull's courthouse email account on February 20 to various friends and acquaintances, according to the newspaper, reads: "A MOM'S MEMORY."

The text starts out saying, "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 joke that followed included a lewd reference to Obama's biracial parentage.

Cebull was appointed to the federal bench in 2001 by then-President George W. Bush.

JUDICIAL CONDUCT PROBE

The U.S. Court of Appeals for the 9th Circuit, which includes Montana, said in a statement that Cebull "has publicly acknowledged that he has acted inappropriately."

Through a letter he sent to the chief judge of the 9th Circuit, Cebull "has initiated the process by which a complaint of judicial misconduct will be brought against him," the statement said. It added that the Judicial Council of the 9th Circuit was expected "to act expeditiously in investigating and resolving this matter."

Common Cause said it filed its own, separate complaint against Cebull with the Judicial Council.

"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," Bob Edgar, president and CEO of the Washington, D.C.,-based group said in a statement.

Under the U.S. Constitution, federal judges are appointed for life and can be removed only through congressional impeachment, a process that has rarely resulted in a judge's dismissal.

A finding of misconduct by a Judicial Council can constitute grounds for impeachment. But David Madden, assistant executive for the 9th Circuit, said he did not think dismissal was likely in such a case, where the complaint was self-initiated. He added that the judge could continue to serve on the bench while the complaint was processed.

Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, agreed that severe sanctions against Cebull were unlikely.

"I suspect what's going to happen is there will be some degree of reprimand or admonition coupled with a suitable apology on the judge's part," he said.

U.S. Senator Jon Tester, a Montana Democrat, said through a spokeswoman that he was "concerned by the situation because it calls into question a lack of judgment by a federal judge."

A representative for Cebull could not be reached for comment on Thursday.

He has publicly admitted sending the email. He told the Great Falls Tribune in an interview published on Wednesday, "I apologize to anybody who is offended by it, and I can obviously understand why people would be offended."

(Reporting by Lori Grannis and Laura Zuckerman; Writing by Alex Dobuzinskis; Editing by Steve Gorman and Paul Thomasch)

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