Local News

Harsh criticisms of judge cost Durham DA her job

Posted March 2, 2012 10:25 a.m. EST
Updated March 5, 2012 4:29 p.m. EST

— Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline filed a notice of appeal Friday after a Superior Court judge ordered her to be removed from office for her inflammatory public criticisms of another judge in recent months.

Cline is the second top prosecutor in Durham County to be removed from office in five years. Former District Attorney Mike Nifong was disbarred in 2007 for his handling of unfounded sexual assault allegations against members of Duke University's lacrosse team.

Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said he found "clear, cogent and convincing" evidence during a four-day inquiry that Cline had "brought the office of the Durham County District Attorney and the entire Durham County justice system into disrepute."

Cline showed little emotion and made a brief statement before announcing that she would appeal the ruling.

"I thank you for your time and effort in reviewing this matter. I appreciate it very much," she said.

"Thank you, and I thank you for, in the past, being an extremely effective litigator for the state of North Carolina and the citizens of Durham County," Hobgood responded.

Durham attorney Kerry Sutton filed an affidavit last month accusing Cline of improper conduct because of her attacks on Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, and she asked that Cline be removed from office under a state law that allows citizens to file such complaints. Sutton said she spent several months working on the case, unpaid.

Her filing prompted Hobgood to suspend Cline, pending the inquiry. Sutton said Friday that Hobgood "considered everything he was supposed to and applied the law" and added she was glad he went into such detail in his ruling.

Retired Superior Court Judge Leon Stanback has been serving as district attorney since Feb. 1. He said he will run the office to the best of his ability as long as he is needed.

Depending on how long it takes to resolve Cline's appeal, a special election could be held this fall to fill the remaining two years of her term. In the meantime, the ruling means that she forfeits her $119,305 annual salary.

"As you might expect, a lot of the staff are very close to Tracey," Stanback said. "I think they need some time to heal."

Judge Marcia Morey said district court proceedings haven't been slowed down by recent events. However, she says, it's sad any time a cloud hangs over an elected official.

"It's sad for the court system. I think it's sad for Durham, but we know that, other than the headline, work continues," Morey said. "We have wonderful people, dedicated people working here, and that's what we focus on."

Cline’s top assistant prosecutor, Jim Dornfried, has filed to run against Hudson, which could potentially set up another battle.

Cline could also face action from the North Carolina State Bar. WRAL News has learned the State Bar is reviewing files involving Cline, but a state bar spokeswoman said she couldn't talk about any possible investigations because that information is confidential.

Durham Police Chief Jose Lopez, who testified on Cline's behalf, did not have a comment about her removal. However, a Durham police spokeswoman said the department would continue to work with the DA's office "as they have been during this time."

Cline alleged in court filings that Hudson is biased against her and her office and asked to have him barred from handling criminal cases in Durham County.

In the lengthy motions, she said he has "the reprobate mind of a monarch," said his conduct involved "moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption," that his actions "raped" crime victims and "kidnapped the rights of victims and their families" and that his only goal was "to demean the district attorney at all costs."

Two other judges found her complaints to be groundless. WRAL News tried to contact Hudson for a comment Friday but was unable to reach him.

Cline testified over two days during the judicial inquiry that she felt she had no choice but to file motions against Hudson, whom she described as a mentor to her. His attitude toward her changed in late 2010, she said, after she refused to dismiss a murder case in which man was challenging how state crime lab analysts handled blood evidence.

Hudson dismissed the case anyway and accused Cline in his written order of withholding evidence from the defense attorney. She denies the allegation.

After that, she said, he would repeatedly move cases around on the criminal court docket, making it difficult for prosecutors to prepare. He also dismissed another murder case last year and accused her of conspiring with police and state authorities to destroy evidence. She denies that allegation as well.

Cline testified that she regretted the harsh language used in the motions, but she stood by the allegations. She also filed a complaint against Hudson with the state Judicial Standards Commission, which disciplines judges for improper behavior.

Noting that she was aware of the political risks of her actions, defense attorney James Van Camp contended that Cline was only trying to do what she thought was right in order to perform her job and serve Durham County residents.

Sutton countered that Cline was trying to intimidate Hudson into playing by her rules. If Cline had been allowed to remain in office, she said, it would have sent a message to the public that respect for the judicial system was no longer necessary.

Victoria Peterson, one of Cline's supporters, reacted to the ruling Friday and said a judge should not be allowed to remove her from office.

"We, the citizens of this community, we put Tracey Cline as our district attorney. We voted for her. We supported her. It's wrong that one judge removes her from office," Peterson said.

Cline is the second district attorney to be removed under the law. A New Hanover County prosecutor was removed in the 1990s for making a racially charged comment in public.