Tracey Cline took a moment Friday with two members of a State Bar panel who had just suspended her law license. She thanked them for giving her an opportunity to defend herself against professional misconduct allegations.
Steven D. Michael, chairman of the panel that presided over the two days of hearings, leaned toward Cline as she shook his hand and offered tender advice. Next time – if there is a next time – he told her, “call someone.”
Cline, who was ousted from the Durham County district attorney’s office in March 2012, found out Friday that her law license would be suspended for five years. But the three-member panel ruled that only two of the years would be an active suspension and that she could reapply to practice law after that.
It was unclear Friday whether Cline has practiced law since the court proceeding held by Judge Robert Hobgood in March 2012 that removed her from her elected post. Any time since then that she has not practiced, the State Bar grievance panel ruled, would apply toward the two-year suspension.
The panel found that Cline violated professional conduct rules related to statements she made against Orlando Hudson, Durham’s chief resident Superior Court judge. She also violated rules in seeking prison records for two inmates, the panel said.
Cline declined to discuss the rulings after the hearing Friday. But in occasionally emotional testimony, she told the grievance panel of the State Bar – the organization that presides over the licensing of North Carolina lawyers – she regretted some of her 2011 conduct at the core of the suspension decision.
“Sometimes you can do the right thing in the wrong way,” Cline told the panel before the disciplinary ruling.
Cline traced her troubles to a time in 2011 when she thought several Durham defense lawyers and Hudson were conspiring with a reporter at The News & Observer to discredit her.
In September 2011, The N&O published an investigative series titled “Twisted truth: A prosecutor under fire” that focused on complaints against Cline in three cases.
Cline said she was frustrated after trying to find out what was behind those complaints and she thought she was being rebuffed by people she had hoped would help her.
Accusing a judge
Cline told the panel that Hudson, a man she considered a mentor, wouldn’t help her figure out what to do and had ruled against her in several high-profile cases.
In stridently worded court documents, she criticized him of corruption and bias.
Cline said Friday that she regretted the language she used against Hudson, but she maintained that she was trying to stick up for crime victims and their families who she thought were being harmed by his rulings.
“My intent was to try to seek justice,” she said, adding that she thought it was like being in “a hurricane without any candles.”
Katherine Jean, the lawyer representing the State Bar, argued to the panel that Cline’s words were “very inflammatory” and were “particularly harmful to the people in Durham,” who had seen the elected district attorney before her, Mike Nifong, pushed out of office for prosecutorial misconduct during the Duke University lacrosse case.
“It did affect the public’s perception of the justice system,” Jean said.
Cline’s father, Baptist minister the Rev. Lee Thomas Cline, and Terry Cline, her brother, testified to her character Friday. Cline, who grew up in Cherryville, a small Gaston County town, is a bright, hardworking and public-minded person who strives to do the right thing, they said.
“We all know Tracey; we know what she brings to the table,” Terry Cline said. “She is very credible. She’s very, very lovable, yet she’s very, very staunch in her belief about helping people.”
The disciplinary panel had ruled in February that Cline’s criticism of Hudson violated several rules of professional conduct. On Friday, the panel also found that she violated conduct rules when she asked an investigator for the Durham district attorney’s office to file motions in 2011 seeking prison visitation records of two inmates – without telling the prisoners or their attorneys about the filings. The panel also ruled that she misled a judge about court documents filed in those cases.
The panel, however, did not make similar findings for another State Bar allegation against her, and members acknowledged their understanding of some of Cline’s contentions about troubles in the courthouse during the time of her misconduct.
“We see things that were disturbing to us about what was going on in Durham County, but we’re not here to try those issues,” Michael, the Kitty Hawk lawyer who led the disciplinary panel, said after ruling on the misconduct. “We’re here to try the conduct you engaged in, and that’s all that is before us.”
Cline filed a lawsuit against The News & Observer after the series was published. That is pending.