Durham County

The ousted Durham DA had her law license suspended. Will she get it reinstated this year?

Former Durham district attorney Tracey Cline collects her papers at the conclusion of the sentencing phase of a disciplinary hearing held at the N.C. State Bar offices in Raleigh on June 5, 2015.
Former Durham district attorney Tracey Cline collects her papers at the conclusion of the sentencing phase of a disciplinary hearing held at the N.C. State Bar offices in Raleigh on June 5, 2015. N&O file photo

Tracey Cline, the former Durham County district attorney who was ousted from office five years ago in an unusual proceeding related to stridently worded comments toward a judge, wants to start practicing law again in North Carolina.

The former prosecutor has asked the State Bar, the organization that oversees lawyers in NC, to reinstate her law license two years after it was suspended.

Margaret Cloutier, deputy counsel for the State Bar and one of the attorneys for the organization who prosecuted the misconduct allegations, has objected to Cline’s request, saying she has not complied with conditions in the disciplinary order.

The objections are tied to the Bar’s attempt to send certified mail and unsuccessful efforts to get sworn statements from Cline during the past two years. A hearing is set for Dec. 13.

Efforts to reach Cline were unsuccessful.

The seeds of trouble that led to the suspension of Cline’s law license in June 2015 were planted in 2011 when she thought several Durham defense lawyers and Durham’s chief resident Superior Court judge, Orlando 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.

Cline told a Bar disciplinary panel in 2015 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 court documents, she criticized him of corruption and bias. She claimed that Hudson was working in league with the newspaper to “demean the district attorney at all costs.”

Cline has said she regretted the language she used against Hudson, but has maintained that she was trying to stick up for crime victims and their families who she thought were being harmed by his rulings.

Nonetheless, the former prosecutor was ousted from office in March 2012 after a judge found she made statements with malice and reckless disregard for the truth about Hudson.

How long has she been out of practice?

Cline appealed the ruling, and while that process was underway, the State Bar brought professional and ethics misconduct allegations against her.

In June 2015, the N.C. State Bar issued a five-year suspension of Cline’s law license for violating professional conduct rules related to the Hudson comments. The panel decided that after two years of not practicing law, Cline would be eligible to apply for restoration of her license.

It remains unclear whether Cline practiced law since the court proceeding held by Judge Robert Hobgood in March 2012 that removed her from her elected post. The panel ruled that any time she had not practiced since then would apply toward the suspension.

In her three-page opposition to Cline’s request, Cloutier contended that Cline had failed to submit her membership card and license to the State Bar within the time frame required and that Cline was not up to date on payments she owed the Bar for fees and continuing education courses.

“Cline has failed to certify to the period of time in which she has not engaged in the practice of law,” Cloutier contended in the objection filed with the State Bar on Sept. 14.

‘Disturbing’ things in Durham

Cline’s father, Baptist minister the Rev. Lee Thomas Cline, and Terry Cline, her brother, testified to her character at the June 2015 State Bar hearing. They described Cline, who grew up in Cherryville, a small Gaston County town, as a bright, hardworking and public-minded person who endeavored to do the right thing.

“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 2015 that Cline’s criticism of Hudson violated several rules of professional conduct. In June 2015, the panel also found that Cline violated conduct rules when she asked an investigator for the Durham district attorney’s office to file court 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 Cline 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,” Steven D. 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.”

Anne Blythe: 919-836-4948, @AnneBlythe1