Pattie S. Harrison, a former District Court judge who is accused of fabricating claims that a cabal of unfriendly judges and lawyers plotted to kill her, fought Thursday to protect her law career before the group that licenses North Carolinas lawyers.
The State Bar already has concluded that allegations made by Harrison in 2002 were false and that her conduct harmed the administration of justice.
Thursday’s hearing, which is expected to continue for several days, was before a three-member bar disciplinary panel that, if it agrees with the bar, is to decide on punishment ranging from a reprimand to disbarment.
Harrison claimed that two District Court judges and seven attorneys from Roxboro, Yanceyville and Greensboro conspired to hire someone to kill her in 1998, according to the North Carolina State Bars complaint.
Harrison, of Roxboro, also accused the judges and six lawyers of hiring an attorney to file 200 false complaints against her.
The allegations were leaked to news organizations a month before a November 2002 election in which Harrison, a Republican and the first black woman to serve in the district that includes Person and Caswell counties, unsuccessfully tried to oust Democrat Mark Galloway, a longtime rival, from his district court seat.
Harrison had lost her judge’s seat two years earlier when she lost a GOP primary, and she went on to lose the 2002 election to Galloway.
At the time Harrison made the allegations in complaints she filed with the State Bar and the U.S. Justice Department, lawyers called them “crazy,” “science fiction” and “a bald-faced falsehood.”
“This is a case about lies told by the defendant, Pattie Harrison, for political and personal advantage,” State Bar counsel Carolin Bakewell said at Thursday’s disciplinary hearing. “This was a case of two strong personalities and they just didn’t like each other.”
The State Bureau of Investigation looked into reports that someone had threatened Harrison’s life, but found no basis for bringing criminal charges, Bakewell said. There was no evidence of any lawyer or judge being implicated by the SBI investigation, Bakewell said.
The bar’s complaint states that Harrison “engaged in conduct involving dishonesty, fraud, deceit or misrepresentation” and “made a knowing, false statement of material fact to a disciplinary authority.”
Harrison said her opponents within the legal profession conspired to create a racially intimidating atmosphere to force her from the bench. She resigned her judicial post last week in a brief e-mail message to the state Administrative Office of the Courts.
Harrison believed other lawyers were threatening her life because she was shot at one evening while driving home from work, her attorney said. Deputies called by Harrison to investigate the shooting along a rural road couldn’t find a bullet in the dark, said attorney Anita Smith of Durham.
“She was listening to rumors,” Smith said. “Judge Harrison actually believed what she put in her complaint. She wanted to know if it was true” and hoped that investigators acting on her complaint would find out.
In hindsight, Harrison realized that there might have been a better way to handle her suspicions, but she didn’t use the system to harm opponents and she shouldn’t be punished, Smith said.
Harrison was an assistant district attorney in Person County from 1985 to 1991 and was appointed by Gov. Jim Martin to the District Court bench in 1991 to fill a vacancy. She was elected the next year. In 1994, she became the chief District Court judge in her district.
Galloway testified that within a few months of his joining the District Court in 1994, Harrison accused him of trying to edge her out of a promotion to chief judge. He said it wasnt true.
They clashed again over who would claim a new, state-supplied laptop computer. Their relationship grew even frostier after she accused him of calling her dumb because she was black and a woman.