Former DA Tracey Cline seeks help with legal fees

acurliss@newsobserver.comJune 7, 2012 

  • Pay for appellate lawyers? The removal of former Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline was launched by an affidavit filed by Durham lawyer Kerry Sutton. Sutton is not considered a legal party to the matter under the law that allows for removal of DAs, but Hobgood ordered her to present the case against Cline. Sutton did that without pay. Sutton since asked for an appellate lawyer, Burton Craige of Raleigh, to be appointed to help with the appeal, citing complex legal issues. Hobgood agreed in an order April 12. The order says Craige also “is to be afforded such compensation to be determined at a later date as is authorized by law or as the Director of the Administrative Office of the Courts finds proper.” Craige said AOC has approved paying him $250 an hour up to a limit of $20,000. Lawyers for Cline say the appointment of Craige is a reason for Cline also to have appointed counsel and pay. “(B)oth parties should be afforded qualified counsel to represent them in a prolonged appeal,” Cline’s lawyers wrote.

Former Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline is seeking public money to pay for her appeal of a judge’s decision in March that removed her from office.

Lawyers for Cline argue in a court filing that Cline is “no longer financially able” to retain them to represent her on what would be a “prolonged” appeal. They are asking the state to pay.

The request by lawyers with the firm of Van Camp, Meacham & Newman of Pinehurst is with Superior Court Judge Robert H. Hobgood, whose ruling after an inquiry led to Cline’s removal.

Hobgood has sought advice from the state courts system, which would provide the money for the lawyers much as poor criminal defendants are afforded state-paid representation.

But Cline’s case is civil, not criminal, and she has no automatic right for the state to pay for her appeal. Indeed, many people involved in court matters do not file appeals because of the costs, typically in the tens of thousands of dollars for a complex issue such as Cline’s.

The director of the courts system, former Judge John Smith, said there is no mechanism in state law for taxpayers to pay for civil or other such proceedings.

Smith wrote a strongly worded email Sunday night to Hobgood, saying of Cline’s request, “We think the motion should be denied.”

“I have examined our policies, and based on all of the circumstances, I conclude there is no appropriation of funds for this purpose, there is no statutory authorization justifying the expenditure, and there is no other factor that would permit the Administrative Office of the Courts to provide payment for outside counsel in this situation,” Smith wrote. “Furthermore, precedents establish that this is not a situation where state funds should be used to pay for private counsel in a removal proceeding such as this.”

Smith said he could not approve the spending unless Hobgood issued an order requiring it.

Hobgood said Thursday “no decision has been made” and he is busy this week on a separate civil matter.

Cline’s request was made the same day that the N.C. State Bar, the agency that disciplines lawyers, filed a complaint against her. That discipline proceeding is a separate legal issue from the removal appeal. Lawyers before the bar typically hire attorneys to represent them at those proceedings.

No request to AG

In his message to Hobgood, Smith wrote that the state courts system is “prohibited from hiring outside counsel to defend state employees accused of wrongdoing without approval from the Attorney General.”

Smith wrote that his office had consulted with the AG’s office and “it is their position that there is no basis for them to provide representation for Ms. Cline for the appeal.”

Noelle Talley, a spokeswoman for Attorney General Roy Cooper, said Cline has not sought any help from the attorney general’s office, either at the time of the removal inquiry or for an appeal.

The AG’s office has agreed to pay for outside lawyers for other state officials accused of wrongdoing, including at least one district attorney, three state prosecutors and several State Bureau of Investigation agents. The state has defended those officials in civil lawsuits or at the State Bar, which disciplines lawyers.

Talley said she would not speculate on whether the attorney general would approve a request from Cline.

Hobgood removed Cline in early March after determining that voluminous court filings she made challenging Durham’s senior judge were false and malicious, and amounted to conduct “prejudicial” to justice that confirmed a “lack of sound judgment.”

Cline had disagreed with rulings by Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson and accused him of leading a conspiracy against her. Cline said Hudson’s conduct involved “moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption.” Cline also had prepared false motions in seeking court records.

Cline’s lawyers have argued that her words were protected by the free-speech provisions of the First Amendment, a likely basis for the appeal.

Cline’s lawyers say the removal process cost her “substantial legal fees,” and the result cost Cline her state salary, which was $119,305.

“Ms. Cline is now financially unable to retain counsel to represent her in her appeal and further representation,” the request for payment says.

Curliss: 919-829-4840

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