Troubling Process in Ousting Official
Durham District Attorney Tracey Cline lost her job Friday, fired by a judge for criticizing another judge.
She brought it on herself with some crazy and sometimes unethical behavior. Still, there’s something a bit troubling about the process itself.
Cline had Moore County’s own Jim Van Camp defending her. He’s arguably one of the best lawyers in this or any other state. But despite his best efforts and those of his associate, Patrick Mincey, the DA is now an ex-DA.
As this highly public case reminded us, our judicial system still reeks of ancient royal courts in which priests meted out justice in the name of monarchs. Our judges still wear anachronistic priestly robes. Being punished for giving offense to one of them is about the last lingering echo of lèse majesté in our long-kingless country.
Plenty of ‘Disrepute’ Already In a procedure that negates freedom of expression, the rarely used law means any citizen can haul any district attorney before a court with nothing but a sworn statement. There was no lawsuit, no claim for damages, no alleged crimes, no arrest or indictment. The people of Durham elected Cline but had no say in her dismissal. Though they’re undeniably better off with her gone, removing other elected officers requires getting enough signatures to force a recall election. No such procedure exists in this state to remove a district attorney, and that probably needs to change. Cline’s unrestrainedly vitriolic words and manipulation of evidence were said to have brought her office and the administration of justice in Durham County “into disrepute.” But there has been plenty of disrepute to go around in that office. Cline used to be the top assistant to former Durham District Attorney Mike Nifong — who was removed and disbarred for falsely accusing three white Duke lacrosse players of raping a black stripper. When Cline ran for Nifong’s job in a special election, she promised she’d “do the right thing” rather than the popular thing. She won. Then she ran without opposition in 2008 and got re-elected.
Other Recourses Existed
It could be argued that Cline was only doing what she had promised the voters in Durham County she would do by carrying out her unseemly tirades. But we’ll never know what those voters would have preferred to see done about Cline’s excesses in her verbal battle with Senior Resident Superior Court Judge Orlando F. Hudson Jr. They never got a chance to say.
In many cases, the plain and simple exercise of freedom of speech has the effect of bringing officials or agencies of government into disrepute. In a democratic society, that’s essentially what freedom of speech is there for. If the behavior in question becomes so untrue and harmful as to do unfair damage to an individual official, then a slander suit might be in order.
But if things come to a point that a duly elected official deserves to be removed from office and put out on the street, as in the case of Cline, surely that process would better be left up to the electorate, not an arbitrary decision by a judge. Except in an emergency, do courts have any business firing elected men or women who haven’t committed any crimes?
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