Editor's note: After this story was published, attorneys for Tracey Cline scheduled a hearing for 3 p.m. on Friday, Feb. 17. Please check the Triangulator news blog for continuing coverage and updates on Cline's removal hearing.
Her voice cracking and wavering, suspended Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline persuaded a judge Monday to give her another week to prepare for a hearing on whether she should be fired. Cline's voice was faltering because she was recovering from pneumonia. She also had yet to find an attorney to represent her who wouldn't have a conflict of interest, she said.
After about an hour of proceedings—during which Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood twice advised Cline to sit and try to recover her voice—the judge granted her a continuance until 10 a.m. on Feb. 20.
Cline, 48, is facing a legal petition arguing she should lose her job because she has publicly fueled an ongoing conflict with Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson that has damaged the credibility of the district attorney's office.
Cline did not respond to requests from the Indy for comment.
Hobgood and the court will decide whether Cline's behavior is, legally speaking, "prejudicial to the administration of justice," a broad phrase meaning Cline's actions have compromised the integrity of the court and the ability of other court officials to do their jobs. But regardless of whether Hobgood removes Cline or restores her power, several fellow lawyers and elected officials say Durham's courthouse and its reputation are already damaged.
"The courts lose their credibility as an institution that is charged with resolving conflicts if the court system itself is embroiled in a conflict in which people are name calling," said Scott Holmes, a Durham defense attorney. Holmes says he considers Cline a friend, but he also called for her resignation in December after she asked the court to prohibit Hudson from presiding over any of her criminal cases.
Cline, who has been district attorney since 2009, says Hudson is holding a grudge against her because she wouldn't dismiss charges against Derrick Allen in the 1998 sexual assault and killing of a 2-year-old girl. Hudson later dismissed the charges.
She also says Hudson conspired with a defense attorney and The News & Observer to smear her in a series of articles that exposed conflicting statements Cline made about evidence in recent cases. The newspaper also wrote about Hudson's findings that Cline's office withheld or suppressed evidence that might have exonerated the accused.
In her quest to remove Hudson from her cases, Cline filed hundreds of pages of boldly worded and often incoherent arguments blasting the judge. His retaliation against her is evident, she argued, in Hudson's dismissal of charges against Allen and that of Michael Dorman. Police charged Dorman with the murder of a missing woman after an acquaintance of Dorman's turned over a bag of her bones that Dorman had allegedly stored in a backpack. Cline allowed the dead woman's family to cremate the remains before Dorman's attorneys could examine them, violating the defendant's rights, Hudson ruled. Cline has challenged Hudson's dismissals.
"Victims of decade old crimes are being emotionally and relentlessly repeatedly raped by this Court's rulings, based only on retaliation disregarding what is right," Cline wrote in one court filing, ridden with spelling and grammatical errors. "And the criminal justice system's credibility is a [casualty] of this Court's callous misconduct."
"I knew that when she filed the filings calling him names—a 'monarch' with the 'blood of victims on his hands'—I knew that was causing irreparable harm to the court system," Holmes said. "I knew this had gone way further than the court system could tolerate."
It wasn't Holmes but Durham defense attorney Kerry Sutton who filed the request to remove Cline on Jan. 18. Sutton represents clients in two cases mired in the Cline-Hudson conflict. A judge suspended Cline with pay on Jan. 27 pending a hearing. Meanwhile, Gov. Bev Perdue has appointed retired judge Leon Stanback to serve as district attorney until Cline is restored to her position, or until a new district attorney can be elected.
It's the second time in five years that Durham's district attorney has been threatened with removal. Cline's predecessor, Mike Nifong, was disbarred and forced from office in 2007 after he brought false rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players.
"It's sad," said Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey. "It's like lightning has now struck twice. Durham needs and deserves a better reputation."
As Durham's image boosters work to rebrand a city handicapped over the years by highly publicized corruption, from housing loan fraud to abuse of overtime pay at the police department, the city continues to be scrutinized by its critics.
"I'm tired of going to meetings in other cities where people are saying, 'There's always something going on in Durham,'" Morey said of a meeting she recently attended in Raleigh.
Cline's public airing of her grievances against Hudson was "inappropriate" and "indefensible," said Jim Coleman, a Duke University law professor. There were other remedies, such as a complaint process through the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission. Instead, Cline chose to announce that she had contacted the commission, and then publicized her qualms in Durham's courts.
Holmes said he advised Cline to stop, likening the situation to a game. The attorneys are the players; the judges are the referees.
"The players, me and you, we don't get to kick the ref off the field. If you do, that's a good way to get thrown out of the game," Holmes recalled telling Cline, whom he has known for 14 years. He urged her to withdraw her filings and apologize. "She's just really locked in on the idea that he's unfair and she believes she's the only person who can stand up to it."
Because Cline sent a dozen subpoenas to judges and lawyers for Monday's hearing—and those people are now being defended by additional attorneys—a good portion of Durham's legal community is embroiled in the case. Several of Cline's peers lined benches in the courtroom, some had been summoned, others were there to support her. Holmes was among them; he is representing a lawyer Cline has subpoenaed.
A few minutes after the hearing was scheduled to start, Cline strode into court in a black dress and pearls. After seeing her repeatedly struggle to speak, Hobgood granted the delay. "I'm not going to hear anything else because I don't feel like Ms. Cline can project her voice," he said.