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Tuesday, June 25, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

No Free Speech in DA’s Verbal Trashing of Judge

(CN) - A district attorney's comments about a judge were not protected by the First Amendment and rightfully got her fired, the North Carolina Court of Appeals ruled.

Tracy Cline was the district attorney for Durham County when a local lawyer, Kirstin Sutton, filed an affidavit asking that Cline be suspended or removed from office.

A county judge ruled that Cline should be removed from office based on statements she made about Judge Orlando Hudson Jr. that are "not supported by the facts."

One of Cline's statements that the trial court found did not have First Amendment protection included her saying that Hudson's "actions encompass conduct involving moral turpitude, dishonesty and corruption."

Cline had also said: "The District Attorney may personally accept the planned personal attacks of this court, but there are some sacrifices that are too great for the district attorney to accept; kidnapping the rights of victims and their families, holding these rights for hostage until the prosecutor plays the game would bankrupt the credibility of our court system, and Justice will not play that game."

"This honorable court is in total and complete violation of the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct and ... will continue to violate the North Carolina Code of Judicial Conduct with regard to the rights of others, no regard of the constitutional protections of the victims of crime, and no regard to the simple difference between right and wrong," Cline said.

The trial court had found that Cline's allegations of corruption against Hudson were more than "false."

"It is inexcusable and clearly, cogently and convincingly demonstrates the personal animosity and ill will of Tracey E. Cline toward Judge Hudson and her actual malice in making the statements," Judge Robert Hobgood said in March 2012.

Cline appealed her removal from office, but the North Carolina Court of Appeals shot her down on Oct. 1.

"We hold that the trial court properly distinguished between Cline's statements that were not made with actual malice, and thus were protected by qualified immunity, and those made with actual malice," Judge Sanford Steelman Jr. wrote for a four-member panel.

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