Court hears arguments in Cline’s appeal

Feb. 13, 2013 @ 07:03 PM

After two lawyers made legal arguments to three judges on the North Carolina Court of Appeals on Wednesday about whether they should overturn the decision to remove Tracey Cline from office, a third attorney got straight to the point.

Cline, Durham’s former district attorney, was undermined daily by a senior superior court judge who continued murder cases without holding hearings and accused her of destroying evidence, conspiracy and discovery violations, said Cline’s attorney, James Van Camp.

Cline tried formally and informally to resolve the problems she had with Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, but nothing worked, he said.

What could she do? Van Camp asked the judges. “You have to do something, and she did it,” Van Camp said.

Van Camp spoke during a rebuttal period about Cline’s frustration that she couldn’t seem to get anyone to pay attention to what she thought were unfair accusations against her and her office.

Van Camp also told the judges that Cline’s accusations against Hudson were not a figment of her imagination “It’s in the record,” Van Camp said. “It’s true.”

Cline did not attend Wednesday’s hearing, instead letting her attorneys speak for her.

In March 2012, Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood ordered that Cline be permanently removed from office as the elected district attorney of Durham County, saying that she had made false statements with malice against Hudson and brought the office of the district attorney into disrepute.

Hobgood made reference to five statements Cline had made about Hudson in motions that she wrote.

The five statements included that she said Hudson’s conduct involved moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption; the he had kidnapped the rights of victims and their families; that he engaged in intentional malicious conduct; that Hudson acted “in total and complete violation of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct;” and that his hands were covered with the blood of justice and he should be ashamed.

Court of Appeals judges Martha A. Geer, Robert N. Hunter, Jr., and Sanford L. Steelman, Jr. listened first to the arguments of Cline’s attorney, Patrick Mincey.

Mincey argued that Cline was not offered due process during the procedure that led to her being removed from office. She had just 30 days to prepare for the hearing, was denied a continuance and received no discovery, he said.

If it had been a hearing to determine whether a judge should be removed from office or an N.C. State Bar hearing to determine whether an attorney should be disciplined, there are safeguards that would have applied to them, Mincey said.

But the North Carolina statute that allows a district attorney to be removed from office offers no such protections, he said. Cline had no subpoena powers to call witnesses and did not know who would be testifying against her, he said.

Mincey also argued that Cline had the First Amendment right to say what she said about Hudson under the U.S. Supreme Court ruling of “New York Times” v. Sullivan. Hudson is a public figure, and as such malice would have to be proven for her statements to be libelous. Cline based her statements on observations that she made in 2011, not malice, he said.

Steelman asked Mincey if the court wasn’t bound by Hobgood’s findings of fact, which said there was no basis for the five statements she made against Hudson. Geer called Cline’s language “extreme.”

“Are you saying she could say whatever she wanted to say because of her frustration with the process?” Geer asked.

Wake County Attorney Burton Craige, who said his assignment was to defend Hobgood’s order removing Cline from office, said that Cline was removed for the things she wrote about Hudson, pointing out that on the first of the 284 pages of motions Cline wrote, she accused him of moral turpitude and of being dishonest and corrupt.

Craige often held up the three-inch thick sheaf of papers that Cline wrote as he spoke to the judges.

Hunter asked Craige if he was satisfied with the process, saying he felt a “bit of sympathy” for a district attorney who found herself removed from office after 30 days.

Craige asked the panel of judges to consider what could happen if they ruled Cline’s words were within limits.

“If this barrage of false accusations against Judge Hudson is acceptable, what would not be acceptable?” he said.

The court did not make a decision Wednesday, but will consider the arguments and the law and issue a written opinion sometime in the near future.