Editor's note: This blog has been updated from its original content as news in the Tracey Cline case has developed this morning.
Seconds after Tracey Cline, Durham’s district attorney, learned she was being ousted from office, she and her attorneys ducked into a jury room on the fifth floor of Durham’s courthouse without a word to the mass of media and citizens who had assembled there.
Cline, 48, emerged from the room about 10 minutes later, appearing composed. She clasped the hand of a man described as her long-term boyfriend, and strode past a swarm of television cameras and bright spotlights to descend the courthouse’s back stairs.
Cline, who had been Durham’s top prosecutor for three years, wouldn’t comment on the decision of Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood to permanently remove Cline from office. But the Pinehurst legal team that Cline assembled just three weeks ago filed a notice Friday morning that they’ll appeal the decision. (Read the ruling, PDF)
As the judge ruled against her, Cline thanked him for taking the time to consider the matter.
“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,” replied Hobgood, a visiting judge from Franklin County.
“I appreciate it judge, that means a lot to me,” Cline replied.
Hobgood concluded that public statements Cline made about Durham’s Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson last fall have interfered with the regular operation of the courthouse and brought Durham’s judicial system into “disrepute.”
Cline’s attorneys tried to prove that, among other reasons, Cline should not be removed from office because her speech was protected by the First Amendment. Hudson did find that some of her comments may fall under the “umbrella” of free speech.
But other statements, including accusations in public documents that Hudson was guilty of misconduct, “moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption,” that he had “kidnapped” the rights of victims and their families, and that he and others had the “blood of justice” on their hands, were not protected.
“This false, malicious, direct attack on Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr., to which Judge Hudson, under the Code of Judicial Conduct, cannot respond publicly, goes far beyond any protected speech under the First Amendment and cannot be and is not supported by any facts in the record,” Hobgood wrote in his final ruling. “These specific statements were made with actual malice and with reckless disregard for the truth.”
Hobgood examined piles of court documents and heard testimony from lawyers, court clerks, the police chief, and even another judge when considering Cline’s fate. Cline herself, however, was the person who spent the most time on the witness stand, recounting the nearly year-long conflict she has had with Hudson.
The tension began when Cline refused to dismiss charges against a suspect in the sexual assault and killing of a two-year-old girl, she testified. It escalated to the point where Cline filed a complaint with the N.C. Judicial Standards Commission, the official route for anyone with a complaint about a judge.
But Cline didn’t give the commission any time to do its job, Hobgood found. On the same day she contacted the commission, she testified, she also began filing requests to have Hudson removed from presiding over her cases in court because he was biased against her.
It was in those documents, which amount to hundreds of pages, that Cline lodged the inflammatory remarks against the judge that resulted in her firing.
Cline knew the risks she was taking—that there are rules that prohibit attorneys for making such comments about a judge, and that she could be fired, Hobgood found. But Cline proceeded, as she commented to some media outlets last fall, that she would continue seeking justice against Hudson “at all costs.”
Several citizens who gathered in the courtroom to support Cline called her ouster a travesty. Community activist and frequent candidate for public office called Cline's removal a "lynching," and decried the fact that the decision to remove her was made by "one man," when she felt Cline's actions should have been evaluated by a panel of her peers.
Cline’s predecessor, Mike Nifong, was the acting district attorney in 2007 when the state licensing group disbarred him because he had pursued false rape charges against three Duke University lacrosse players. Unable to continue to practice law without a license, Nifong resigned from office.
Cline may also still be subject to additional action from the N.C. State Bar. According to court clerks, officials with the organization have requested more than 3,000 pages in six court cases Cline's office has handled. Late last year, Hudson wrote in official rulings that Cline, among others, had intentionally suppressed or destroyed evidence in at least two criminal cases. Cline says the allegations are untrue. If the Bar is indeed investigating these findings, Cline could face severe penalties or even lose her license to practice law.
Retired Superior Court Judge Leon Stanback has served as the interim district attorney for Durham since Cline was suspended at the end of January, pending her removal hearing. Gov. Bev Perdue appointed Stanback to the role.
The N.C. Court of Appeals would have to settle the issue before Durham voters could elect another district attorney. If the process proceeds quickly, voters could choose another district attorney in a special election this fall to finish Cline's term, which was supposed to end in 2014.