Judge Tracie Hunter, Hamilton County Ohio Interview
July 22, 2019
Tracie Hunter was a judge for the Hamilton County Juvenile Court in Ohio. On January 10, 2014, Hunter was suspended by the Ohio Supreme Court, pending the result of indictments on eight felony counts.
Hunter was elected in November 2010, and her term was to have begun in January 2011. However, due to a dispute and lawsuit over provisional ballots, she did not take office until 2012.Hunter was sworn in on May 25, 2012.
Hunter received her undergraduate degree from Miami University in 1988 and her J.D. from the University of Cincinnati College of Law in 1992. She also graduated in the first class of the National Association of Broadcasters Educational Leadership Development Program in Washington, DC.
In addition to serving as a judge, Hunter is the pastor at Western Hills Brethren in Christ Church. Before joining the court, Hunter served as a guardian ad litem with ProKids and worked as a contract attorney with the public defender's office. She opened her own law firm in 1994 and worked on probate, real estate, personal injury and civil rights matters. Before opening her own law practice Hunter was an attorney at the law firm of Waite, Schneider, Bayless & Chesley, LPA.
Awards and associations
Member, Ohio Association of Juvenile Court Judges
Member, National Council of Juvenile and Family Court Judges
Member, Ohio Judicial Conference
Member, National Association of Women Judges
Member, Ohio State Bar Association
Member, Board of the Cincinnati Human Relations Commission
Member, Phoenix Advisory Board
Member, Urban Minority Alcohol and Drug Abuse Outreach Program
Member, Board of Directors, Job Corp
Member, Board of Directors, Melrose YMCA
Former Member, ad hoc advisory team for the former managing editor, The Cincinnati Enquirer
Alumnus, Urban League’s African-American Leadership Development Program
Member, Inroads Cincinnati
In September 2013, two special prosecutors were appointed to investigate allegations brought by the Hamilton County prosecutor’s office that someone in Judge Hunter’s courtroom may have committed crimes by deliberately backdating court orders to prevent the orders from being appealed. Hunter already had a bad relationship with the prosecutor's office since a disagreement with county prosecutor Joe Deters earlier in 2013. Hunter accused him of defaming her, although Deters denied the claims.
The Hamilton County public defender's office filed multiple lawsuits against Hunter with the Ohio First District Court of Appeals in 2012, due to delays in issuing rulings. Hunter failed to meet the 120-day deadline, set by the Ohio Supreme Court, for issuing rulings. According to Hamilton County Public Defender, Ray Faller, those rulings related directly to the welfare of children and included matters such as adoptions, removing children from homes or allowing them to receive permanent placement in foster homes, as well as other issues.
According to Hunter's attorney, Richard Blake, he was never contacted by special prosecutors when they were investigating the matter. However, according to special prosecutor R. Scott Croswell III, he and Merlyn Shiverdecker interviewed 30 witnesses and reviewed thousands of pages of documents during their investigation. Defense lawyers Croswell and Shiverdecker were appointed to serve as special prosecutors at the request of the Hamilton County prosecutor's office. The two previously represented Deters when he was accused of theft in 2003. He was later acquitted of the charges.
Hunter, in the summer of 2013, requested that an independent audit of the juvenile court be held, claiming that the juvenile court clerk's office had admitted to inaccurately reporting data on court cases. Hunter said that many of the cases she received were out-of-date before she even became the judge of the juvenile court. Hunter defended herself, saying:
“ I question the Enquirer's, Judge Williams' and the Public Defender's motivations for misrepresenting data. They all knew children were languishing in foster care for years before I ever received many of these cases. However, I am being singled out for a problem that didn't begin with me and that has been a problem in juvenile court for years. ”
Suspended by Ohio Supreme Court following indictment
In January 2014, Hunter was indicted on eight felony counts, including:
two counts of tampering with evidence,
two counts of forgery,
two counts of having an unlawful interest in a public contract, and
two counts of theft in office.
The charges related to orders which were backdated and signed by Hunter. Other charges related to her hiring her brother to work for her at the court. Hunter was also accused of using her position as a judge to obtain documents from her brother's personnel file.
In accordance with state law, Hunter was disqualified from acting as a judge by the Ohio Supreme Court on January 10, 2014. The court ordered that she remain disqualified while charges were pending, but that she would continue to collect her $121,350 salary. Hunter was not arrested.
Hunter entered a plea of not guilty to nine felony charges on January 17, 2014. The charges included two counts of tampering with evidence, two counts of forgery, two counts of having an unlawful interest in a public contract, two counts of theft in office and one count of misuse of credit cards.
Following the court appearance, Hunter marched in the Cincinnati parade for Dr. Martin Luther King on January 20, 2014. She marched behind a banner that showed her picture next to the famous civil rights leader's image. Prior to the march, on December 15, 2013, she made the following statement at a rally:
“ I don't care what they do to me. If I go to jail then I will join the long list of Martin Luther King. I will join the long list of people like Rosa Parks. I will join the long list of people like Nelson Mandela. ”
Bishop Bobby Hilton, a supporter of Hunter, commented that the charges against the judge were a political move by enemies she made when she contested the results of a 2010 election. That year, she ran for her current seat against John M. Williams, and eventually was declared the winner. Hunter, in an email to juvenile court staff following the indictment, said she wanted "it understood that Hamilton County Juvenile Court was not ready for its first African American and Democrat judge."
Jury selection in Hunter's misconduct trial began on September 8, 2014, in Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas with Judge Norbert A. Nadel presiding. Hunter's charges related to allegations that she forged and backdated documents, used her county credit card to pay for legal filings and getting involved in the firing of her brother, who worked at the juvenile court.
On December 5, 2014, Hunter was convicted of one felony and was sentenced to six months of jail time in the Hamilton County Justice Center. Nadel handed down the sentence, stating: "The evidence showed that the criminal conduct of Tracie Hunter has dealt a very serious blow to the public confidence of our judicial system and there's no question about that." However, the jury was unable to reach a decision on eight other charges. Nadel declared a mistrial on the remaining charges, and a new trial date was scheduled for those counts.
On December 26, 2014, the Ohio Supreme Court issued a stay on Hunter's six-month prison sentence while she awaited her retrial on the eight charges.
Hunter appealed to the Ohio Supreme Court asking that Judge Patrick Dinkelacker be removed from presiding over her retrial on eight felony charges because she believed that Dinkelacker would not be able to remain impartial. However, a poll of the judges of the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas (taken per Chief Justice Maureen O'Connor's request) revealed that the other judges would all recuse themselves if selected to preside over Hunter's case.
Dinkelacker, in a separate letter to Chief Justice O'Connor, stated: "I find no legal reason or judicial code of conduct guidelines which permits me to disqualify myself." He further argued that his appeals court decision against Hunter and the contempt of court ruling was supported by the Ohio Supreme Court, and yet Hunter did not ask the Ohio Supreme Court to be removed from presiding over any cases involving her.
On January 19, 2016, the day the trial was scheduled to begin, special prosecutors dropped the remaining eight charges against Hunter. Special Prosecutor Scott Croswell said they had made their point, and that, "Whether Tracie Hunter is convicted of one felony or nine felonies makes little or no difference." Attorney Jennifer Branch said she believed the charges were dropped because the prosecution knew it couldn't win. On January 21, the Ohio Supreme Court ruled that Hunter could continue to delay her jail sentence while she appealed her conviction. An appeals court upheld her conviction and the state supreme court to decided not to hear the case.
Hunter was arrested on July 22, 2019, following Hunter's conviction and sentencing to six months in jail.
In 2013, WCPO Television and The Enquirer sued Hunter, claiming she improperly closed her courtroom to the public and media. Hunter barred The Enquirer from her courtroom after the newspaper printed the names of six juvenile defendants. She stated that including the names of juveniles in the publication violated a court order restricting the disclosure of the defendants' names. However, the Ohio First District Court of Appeals required that the publication's writers be allowed access to the courtroom and stayed the enforcement of the restriction on the disclosure of the names.
At a hearing following the appellate court's ruling, Hunter announced The Enquirer could attend the hearings regarding the criminal case, so long as the publication did not publish the names of the defendants. As a result of this announcement, the appeals court found Hunter in contempt of court. The Ohio Supreme Court upheld the appellate court's finding that Hunter was in contempt of court, stating that she understood what the appellate court was ordering and that "her statement to the contrary is nothing more than a declaration of defiance."
Since she was sued in her capacity as a judge, Hunter was represented by the Hamilton County prosecutor's office. However, Hunter attempted to hire private attorneys to represent her. Due to disputes which arose after the 2010 election, Hunter felt it would have been a conflict of interest for Hamilton County prosecutor Joe Deters to represent her. Deters stated, "There is no authority [for Hunter] to do that at all." However, three attorneys filed documents on Hunter's behalf.
Hunter had some public disputes with her former election opponent and current colleague, John M. Williams, since the 2010 election. Williams lost that election following a challenge by Hunter, but was appointed to a vacancy on the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas the following year.
In October 2012, Hunter attempted to hire Wende Cross as her own court administrator, after reprimanding Curt Kissinger, who was serving as the juvenile court administrator and thus reported to both Hunter and Williams. Hunter stated:
“ [B]ased on Judge Williams’ unprecedented and inappropriate interference it is apparent that Curt Kissinger performs his duties at the pleasure of John Williams. Therefore, in order for me to effectively carry out my duties as judge of Hamilton County Juvenile Court, I also require a court administrator. ”
—Judge Tracie Hunter
Judge Williams stated, "I think that a hire like this is unnecessary and creates a confusing management structure and is a waste of taxpayer dollars." The new court administrator would have been paid a $106,900 annual salary. No other courts in the county have multiple court administrators.
Hunter's attempt to hire her own administrator caused a backlash with Hamilton County commissioners, who filed suit against her and asked her to not to go through with the hire. They withdrew the suit the next day. Hunter did hire Cross, but as a magistrate rather than a court administrator. The salary for magistrates is $75,000.
Hunter defeated Daniel J. Donnellon in the Democratic primary to advance to general election. She ran against John M. Williams in November. Williams was originally declared the winner of this race. However, the race was undecided until July 2012, due to a legal dispute over whether to count 849 ballots which were cast in the wrong precincts. The Ohio Supreme Court ordered the erroneous ballots to be ignored, but U.S. District Judge Susan Dlott ruled that 149 of such ballots were only wrong because of poll worker errors and should be counted.
In July 2012, the Republican Party dropped their appeal of the vote total, allowing Hunter to take her seat on the court.
See also: Hunter v. Hamilton County Board of Elections, upheld by the United States Court of Appeals for the 6th Circuit.
On October 21, 2013, Hunter was awarded $921,000 in legal fees in connection with her lawsuit for the recount.