By The Raleigh Telegram
DURHAM – After a week of hearings, Durham County District Attorney Tracey Cline was removed from office today by Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood.
Judge Hobgood announced his decision this morning after presiding over hearings this week at the Durham courthouse that examined Cline’s recent actions. Cline had made statements that were inflammatory and extremely critical of Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson. Cline said that Hudson should not preside over superior court criminal cases because of his alleged bias against her.
Cline had also made statements that Judge Hudson was “raping” crime victims through his court decisions and that he was partaking in “dishonesty and corruption.” Further, she had alleged that Hudson had conspired with the News & Observer newspaper to publicly humiliate her when the newspaper published a series of articles showing irregularities in her office.
Using a state law that allows removal of a district attorney if a finding of facts can show they are not fulfilling their duties, local attorney Kerry Sutton had filed the motion in court to hold the hearings to examine Cline’s behavior and fitness for office after Cline had increasingly become vocal in her criticism of Judge Hudson.
During her hearing, Cline acknowledged that perhaps she could have worded her attacks on Judge Hudson in a better way but maintained that all of her allegations were true. Despite lots of paperwork filed, Cline did not seem to present any evidence that Hudson was corrupt or that the News & Observer newspaper in any way collaborated with the judge to conspire against her.
Cline and her attorney also maintained that her statements about Hudson were within her First Amendment rights.
However, after hearing four days of testimony, Judge Hobgood disagreed with Cline’s assertions. In his statements to the court today following his decision to remove Cline from office, Judge Hobgood said that Cline had simply gone too far.
He said the “falsity of her her statements” and “the reckless manner in which they were made without regard to the truth” would therefore “afford no Constitutional free speech protection” under the First Amendment.
Hobgood said that Cline’s actions had “impeded” the flow of cases in Superior Court and that she needed to be removed from office as allowed under North Carolina General Statutes. He said he reached his decision after being presented with “clear, cogent, and convincing evidence” that she was not fit for office and that she was bringing the Durham justice system into “disrepute.”
Judge Hobgood said she was removed from her position, effective immediately and that her pay was terminated. Cline did not seem to react much during Hobgood’s announcement but thanked the judge for his time and Judge Hobgood thanked her for her service to the state.
In a brief statement, Cline said briefly afterwards that should be filing an appeal.
Much of Cline’s behavior came to light after the News & Observer published a series of article about Cline, purporting to show prosecutorial misconduct in criminal cases and erratic accusations about Hudson. Cline tried to allege that Judge Hudson was behind the articles in the newspaper, which News & Observer editor John Drescher rebuffed in print as being completely false.
Cline initially sent subpoenas to News & Observer reporters to appear during the hearing, but according to an email from a News & Observer reporter to The Raleigh Telegram this week, these subpoena requests to appear were later dropped.
North Carolina Press Association attorney John Bussian said that sending subpoenas to reporters in this type of hearing was “unprecedented.”
“This is precisely the kind of behavior by a public official that is prohibited under the NC Shield Law that protects journalists,” said Bussian in an interview with the Telegram.
Cline is the second publicly elected District Attorney to be removed from office in recent years. Former DA Mike Nifong was removed from office and later disbarred after his botched handling of the famous Duke Lacrosse case.
During that case, North Carolina Attorney General Roy Cooper stepped in to proclaim several Duke students “innocent” of raping alleged victim Crystal Mangum after the case started to fall apart when inconsistencies in testimonies and allegations started to appear.
A source who has worked within the Durham District Attorney’s office who does not wish to be named claims that Cline was in charge of the Duke Lacrosse investigation when she served as the prosecutor who was second in charge under Nifong, although her role in the case has not been confirmed.
The person also alleges that Cline’s behavior has added to the tensi0n in already busy Durham Courts over the last few months. They said that due to Cline’s claims about Judge Orlando Hudson, there has been tension between judges and the district attorney’s staff.
As an example, they said a DA’s office intern was recently cited with contempt of court by a judge just for accidentally turning off a light switch in the courtroom. ::
N&O “TWISTED TRUTH” SERIES ABOUT CLINE: