RALEIGH, N.C. — Gov. Mike Easley has appointed Mike Nifong's predecessor to take over temporarily as Durham's district attorney.
Superior Court Judge Jim Hardin agreed, at Easley's request, to fill the vacancy created by Nifong's suspension, which came one day after the disbarred prosecutor announced he would resign from office next month.
"Judge Hardin has a great reputation for high ethics and integrity," Easley said in a statement. "He was one of the state's finest district attorneys when he served in this capacity."
The appointment was effective immediately, and Hardin will be sworn in Thursday by Durham Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson at a ceremony in Asheville. Hardin, who was at a Superior Court Judges' conference in Asheville, will hold a press conference in Durham at 4:30 p.m. Thursday.
Easley wants Hardin to "take stock of the office, the personnel and its practices" while the governor conducts a search for Nifong's permanent replacement.
Easley also contacted Wake County District Attorney Colon Willoughby and asked the State Conference of District Attorneys to assist Hardin to remedy any problems that exist.
Hardin is expected to be off the bench for about two months, the news release said. After he completes his assignment, Easley expects to return him to his seat on the Superior Court bench.
In April 2005, Easley appointed Nifong to replace Hardin, who gained notoriety for successfully prosecuting the 2003 murder trial of Durham novelist Mike Peterson.
Hardin spent nearly 20 years working in the Durham District Attorney's Office, 11 of them as district attorney.
Reaction to Easley's decision by those who have worked with Hardin has been positive.
"Jim was an excellent district attorney, and I enjoyed working for him for many years," said former Assistant District Attorney Freda Black, who helped prosecute the Peterson murder trial. "It sounds like a sound decision on the governor's part."
Durham defense attorney Tom Maher, who helped represent Peterson, said he was surprised by Easley's decision because Hardin is a judge, but he called it a good move.
"It was a good decision," Maher said. "Jim was always professional in my dealings with him. He didn't let emotions or pressure get to him."
Hardin currently serves as staff judge advocate for the 81st Regional Readiness Command of the U.S. Army Reserve and was recently selected for promotion to colonel.
From January to June 2006, Hardin served with U.S. Army Central Command during Operation Iraqi Freedom, in Kuwait and Qatar. He received his undergraduate degree from Duke University in 1979 and his law degree from Mercer University in 1983.
Earlier Wednesday, the governor's press secretary, Seth Effron, said Easley had already started interviewing candidates to replace Nifong and serve until the term ends in 2008.
Effron would not say whom Easley has interviewed to replace Nifong or how long he has been interviewing but that the governor wants the "best and most appropriate (person) to fill the position."
Nifong submitted his resignation, effective July 13, on Monday, two days after being disbarred by the North Carolina State Bar's Disciplinary Hearing Commission for breaking more than two dozen rules of professional conduct during his handling of the Duke lacrosse rape case.
The panel determined Nifong lied to the court, made inflammatory statements about the three indicted lacrosse players and their teammates, and withheld critical DNA evidence from defense attorneys.
Hudson suspended Nifong with pay on Tuesday until he resigns out of concern that the embattled prosecutor's presence could cause potential problems.
The General Assembly on Wednesday passed a bill that would allow Easley to remove Nifong from office. The measure now goes to Easley's desk, who has pledged to sign the bill into law.
Current state law requires judges and district attorneys to be members of the bar in good standing, but it provides no means to remove a disbarred official who refuses to step down. The bill was drafted to address those issues and was not a direct response to Nifong's case.
It remains unclear when Easley could actually remove Nifong from office. The North Carolina State Bar must issue its disbarment order in writing, and Nifong must make clear that he doesn't plan to appeal.