When he goes on senior status in March, Chief U.S. District Judge Richard Cebull of Billings will be retired from active service but may hear cases in Montana or in other parts of the country, the Billings Gazette reported. Cebull did not respond to a request for comment Thursday, the newspaper said.
A special committee of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is investigating Cebull, the report said.
The Montana Human Rights Network and Common Cause have filed formal complaints against Cebull, and People for the American Way President Michael Keggan said the judge should resign or retire immediately.
"Cebull may hope that taking senior status before the misconduct review concludes will help him avoid sanction," Keegan said. "But he should be held accountable by the 9th Circuit regardless of his status. Taking senior status is a half-measure that allows Cebull to continue hearing cases."
Cebull told the Great Falls Tribune in February he sent the email Feb. 20 from his official courthouse email address to six friends.
Cebull, who will be 69 in 2013, started off the email by saying he doesn't forward many items but was sending this one with "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?'" the email joke reads. "His mother replied, 'Don't even go there Barack! From what I can remember about that party, you're lucky you don't bark!'"
Cebull said he doesn't consider himself racist, just anti-Obama, and he didn't intend for the email to become public.
"I didn't send it as racist, although that's what it is," he said. "I sent it out because it's anti-Obama."
Cebull was nominated to the federal bench by President George W. Bush in 2001 and has been a chief judge since 2008.