DURHAM — By week's end, the people of Durham should know whether Tracey Cline will be reinstated as the county's top prosecutor.
A judge heard the final arguments Wednesday in an inquiry that has stretched for weeks, then began considering whether Cline's explosive attacks on a judge warrant her permanent removal from the elected position as Durham district attorney.
"Ms. Cline, I would contend, abused the power of the office to just defend herself," said Durham lawyer Kerry Sutton, explaining that Cline tied up court resources and used her own tax-paid salary to settle personal beefs with Judge Orlando Hudson and The News & Observer, which published in September a three-part series on Cline's handling of several cases.
Cline landed in the hot seat after lengthy, inflamed attacks in court filings on Hudson.
Cline testified she was convinced Hudson turned against her and was determined to rule in ways that impeded her work as a prosecutor. Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood of Franklin County indicated he could rule as soon as Friday on whether her actions prejudiced the court system and brought her office into disrepute.
Hobgood suspended Cline from office on Jan. 27. State law says a DA must be removed for that type of conduct, spelling out the hearing process that has been under way in Durham since Feb. 13.
If Hobgood decides Cline's behavior was out of bounds, he would remove Cline from the post she first won in late 2008. Cline was re-elected in 2010 without opposition.
The First Amendment
On Wednesday, Cline's lawyers made an impassioned plea for Hobgood to not remove her, saying that it is the right and duty of Americans to speak against a government they believe has erred. They asked Hobgood to heed Cline's First Amendment right to free speech when considering her "flavorful" attacks against Hudson.
"Everyone has the right, indeed the duty, to speak about their government," said Patrick Mincey, one of Cline's attorneys.
Sutton said rules governing lawyers' behavior should have dictated the way Cline raised issues with Hudson. She said that Cline did report her gripes with Hudson to the state's Judicial Standards Commission, which oversees judges' conduct, but didn't have the patience to wait for their investigation.
Cline filed the first of her attacks on Hudson the same day, said Sutton, who cited documents introduced in the inquiry. "If you return Ms. Cline to office, this conflict will continue until one of them loses," Sutton said.
James Van Camp, Cline's lead attorney, said she was driven to this impassioned offensive against Hudson out of desperation and hurt.
"I cannot imagine the despair ... when somebody who you respect, like a mentor, basically accuses you of being fraudulent, a co-conspirator, destroying evidence intentionally, prosecutorial misconduct when there is no basis in evidence for any of those findings," he said.
Throughout the inquiry, Sutton has accused Cline of not being truthful, and offered documents contradicting Cline's memory or version of events. Cline insists she has told the truth and taken steps to be accurate.
Sutton, who has led this effort as a volunteer, told Hobgood she's not a social friend of either Cline or Hudson.
But Sutton said she does resent the time that Cline's efforts against Hudson claimed from the court and lawyers like her, who found themselves in Cline's path. Sutton said that Cline's filing against Hudson in a case in which Sutton was defense attorney hijacked time she says she should have spent working on a motion in the client's defense instead of dealing with the dispute Cline launched.
Cline, the daughter of two pastors and an impassioned advocate for crime victims, started practicing law in 1989 as a public defender in Fayetteville. She came to the Durham District Attorney's Office in 1994.
The N.C. State Bar, which has the power to strip Cline of her license to practice law, has requested Cline's filings in an apparent investigation of her.