By Friday, suspended Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline could be ousted from the elected office she has held for three years.
That is when Superior Court Judge Robert Hobgood said he expects to rule on whether Cline should be removed as the county’s top prosecutor. A local attorney filed a petition to have Cline removed after Cline publicly accused a Durham judge of misconduct.
In testimony Monday, Cline says she considered carefully whether to file multiple 280-page motions asking Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson to remove himself from her court cases because he is biased. The filings blast Hudson, saying he has presided with the “reprobate mind of a monarch,” and that a decision he made to dismiss sexual assault charges in one case was tantamount to raping victims all over again.
Cline, 48, said she consulted officials with the state’s court system and the state bar as well as fellow attorneys about an ongoing conflict with Hudson. But Cline says she did not reveal the text of the emotional and often incendiary motions against Hudson that she filed last fall. Although Cline could have requested that the documents be sealed from the public to protect the judge, she said she didn’t consider the option.
Cline said she has known Hudson for more than 20 years and considers him a mentor. But over the past year, Hudson has ruled against her in high-profile criminal cases and has issued orders saying she acted unethically in some cases by failing to disclose evidence or consenting to its mishandling.
Cline said she tried talking privately to Hudson about his rulings. “I went to Judge Hudson to ask him, ‘Why did you say I did something when you know I didn’t?’” she said. The judge reportedly told her that although others may have been more culpable for ethical failures in the cases, Cline also bore responsibility.
Soon, she said, Hudson stopped allowing her to visit his chambers to discuss the conflict, and wouldn’t respond to emails she sent about evidence in a case. “I knew there was something wrong,” Cline said. “I went to him because the prosecutors here in this district, our office, we could not continue to function like this.”
All lawyers are charged with accepting a judge’s rulings gracefully, said Stephen Lindsay, a lawyer who prodded Cline with tough questions for five hours during cross-examination Monday. Lawyers are also limited in what they may say about a judge, he said in court. So why, he asked, would Cline decide to publicly attack Hudson’s conduct?
Cline said that although her words were harsh, she doesn’t regret filing the motionsit had to be done.
“Even though this has been difficult, I promised to do what was right,” she testified. “And after doing all that I could do, I had to protect the people of Durham County.”
Lindsay is assisting defense attorney Kerry Sutton, who filed the complaint in January contending Cline’s actions had brought Durham’s justice system into disrepute. Lindsay exclusively questioned Cline. The embattled prosecutor often gave circuitous answers to yes-or-no questions. She appeared reluctant to commit even to facts that had been previously established.
Lindsay appeared frustrated and rolled his eyes as he strode between the witness stand and his seat. He frequently addressed Cline without looking at her and chatted with Sutton as Cline was answering questions.
“Mr. Lindsay. Mr. Lindsay,” Cline repeated from the stand, snapping at one point: “Are you listening to me?”
“Yes, ma’am,” Lindsay replied, without turning to acknowledge her.
Regardless of Lindsay’s questions, Cline frequently brought her testimony back to her own defense. She often turned directly to Hobgood to address him directly. It is solely the judge’s decision whether Cline keeps her job.
After Cline left the stand, several other witnesses made brief statements.
Attorney Bill Cotter, who has practiced law in Durham for 30 years, said he wouldn’t have used the same words Cline did in her motions, but said he didn’t feel her actions brought the district attorney’s office into disrepute.
“What most people who know anything about it think, is [that] it’s a quarrel between two people,” Cotter said.
Police Chief Jose Lopez also briefly testified, saying he didn’t think Cline’s actions had put the prosecutor’s office in a bad light.
And Chief District Court Judge Marcia Morey said that the operation of the courts had not been disrupted by the publicity of the dispute between Cline and Hudson.
“This might be a distraction to the administration of justice, but it has by no means slowed it down or derailed it,” Morey said.
A version of this story appeared Feb. 27 on the Indy’s Triangulator blog.
This article appeared in print with the headline “DA’s fate awaits Friday ruling.”