State law governs removal of district attorneys

STAFF WRITERFebruary 24, 2012 

— Under state law, district attorneys can be removed from office by a judge for the following reasons:

  • Mental or physical incapacity interfering with the performance of his duties which is, or is likely to become, permanent;

  • Willful misconduct in office;

  • Willful and persistent failure to perform his duties;

  • Habitual intemperance;

  • Conviction of a crime involving moral turpitude;

  • Conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute; or

  • Knowingly authorizing or permitting an assistant district attorney to commit any act constituting grounds for removal as listed above.

Cline is being subjected to the test of whether she's behaved in a way that is "prejudicial to the administration of justice which brings the office into disrepute."

Experts say it is an intentionally vague phrase to capture a range of behavior. A district attorney in New Hanover County was found in the mid-1990s to have violated that standard after using a racial slur against a bar patron. A judge was once found to have broken that standard for telling a lawyer in court to use his "big boy voice."

Experts said the judge deciding about Tracey Cline's conduct also might draw from the rules of professional conduct that apply to lawyers in weighing whether her actions have been "prejudicial" to the administration of justice and brings the office of district attorney into "disrepute."

Lawyers' rules include a requirement of truthfulness at all times and a prohibition on "engaging in undignified or discourteous conduct that is degrading to a tribunal."

Cline's former boss, Superior Court Judge James E. Hardin Jr., warned Cline in early December to be careful and accurate in her court filings after determining that she had presented false motions to him.

Within weeks, Cline filed more attacks on Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson that records and interviews have shown contain substantial misstatements.

In action that is separate from the removal hearing, the State Bar, the state agency that regulates and disciplines lawyers, has been reviewing filings written by Cline.

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