DURHAM, N.C. – Lawmakers unanimously approved legislation Tuesday that would allow Gov. Mike Easley to immediately remove Durham County District Attorney Mike Nifong from office, hours after a judge suspended the disbarred prosecutor.
Representatives in the House voted 116-0 in favor of the bill. It now heads to the Senate, which approved it unanimously in early April and must sign off on minor changes made in the House before Easley can sign it into law.
Nifong was disbarred Saturday for breaking more than two dozen rules of professional conduct in his handling of the Duke lacrosse rape case. He said in a letter released Monday that he would leave office July 13 — a date that could arrive before the legislation becomes law.
That wasn't soon enough for Superior Court Judge Orlando Hudson, who on Tuesday suspended Nifong with pay. The county sheriff, who immediately stripped Nifong of his badge and the keys to his office, was ordered to prevent Nifong from carrying out any duties of the office.
"There is probable cause to believe that the district attorney has engaged in willful misconduct in office and conduct prejudicial to the administration of justice, which brings the office into disrepute," Hudson wrote in his order.
Candy Clark, Nifong's legal assistant, said he wasn't in the office on Tuesday. The one case he was currently handling was being reassigned, she said.
"We'll make arrangements to help him get his personal belongings later," said Durham County Sheriff Worth Hill, who went to Nifong's house to serve the order Tuesday morning. "I've been in law enforcement since 1959, and this is the first time I can recall something like this taking place."
The bill approved Tuesday would allow Easley to remove any judge or district attorney who is disbarred. The measure has had virtually no opposition in the Legislature, and Easley — who said Monday he would prefer to immediately remove Nifong — has promised to sign it once it clears the Senate.
There was no word on whom Easley will chose to replace Nifong. A disciplinary committee of the North Carolina State Bar concluded Saturday that Nifong had lied to the court, made inflammatory statements about the three indicted players and their teammates, and withheld critical DNA evidence from defense attorneys. They disbarred him the same day.
The action in the House and the suspension order came a day after Duke University said it had reached an undisclosed financial settlement with the three former lacrosse players falsely accused of rape last year. The allegations were debunked in April by state prosecutors, who said the players were the innocent victims of Nifong's "tragic rush to accuse."
Duke suspended Reade Seligmann, Collin Finnerty and Dave Evans after they were charged with raping a stripper at an off-campus party. The university also canceled the team's season and forced their coach to resign. The players' families racked up millions of dollars of legal bills in their defense, and appear likely to file a lawsuit against Nifong.
"We welcomed their exoneration and deeply regret the difficult year they and their families have had to endure," Duke said in a statement announcing the settlement. "These young men and their families have been the subject of intense scrutiny that has taken a heavy toll."
A hearing on the removal request must be held within 30 days. The judge appointed a special prosecutor to present evidence against Nifong should the hearing take place, which appears unlikely since Nifong has already promised to leave office before then.
Dick Ellis, a spokesman for the state Administrative Office of the Courts, said Nifong will still be eligible for his full retirement benefits — a pension and health care — that he accrued while working as a state employee for nearly 30 years. Because he was appointed in 2005, he did not serve as district attorney long enough to become vested in a more lucrative retirement system for judges, prosecutors and the director of the courts office.