Former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter, center, is surrounded by local clergy members at the Western Hills Brethren in Christ Church on Roberts Avenue in Cincinnati where she is pastor, after a judge signed an order upholding the trial court’s guilty verdict and lifted the stay of execution of sentencing for her five-year-old conviction. Photo by Vanessa Enoch
Pastor Damon Lynch III: ‘If she goes to jail, she doesn’t go alone.’
By Vanessa Enoch, Ph.D.
More than 20 pastors from across the city of Cincinnati, and several community leaders hosted a prayer vigil on Thursday, May 30, for former Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Hunter. The prayer vigil was planned the evening before, after U.S. District Court Judge Timothy Black signed an order upholding the trial court’s guilty verdict and lifted the stay of execution of sentencing for her five-year-old conviction. During the prayer vigil, Hunter got news that Black also denied a motion to reinstitute the stay pending her attorneys’ intent to appeal his decision.
Hunter was charged with securing a public contract for her brother. No evidence was ever presented in the case to substantiate that claim. Initially, special prosecutors alleged that she had secured work hours for her brother, but after evidence was presented in court that her brother had been working for the court for seven years before she arrived on the bench, and she had no involvement in securing his hours, the prosecutors changed the narrative and alleged she tried to help him keep his job. She was inevitably convicted for something she was never actually charged with.
HUNTER’S CASE was before Judge Black on a petition for a writ of habeas corpus that was filed by her attorneys, who asserted that she was denied her fundamental U.S. Constitutional right to a fair trial in the Hamilton County Court of Common Pleas. Judge Black’s decision stated, “Generally speaking, the federal court must decide whether the state court was wrong to conclude that Hunter received the fair trial that every criminal defendant is entitled under the United States Constitution.”
The case now goes back to Hamilton County Common Pleas Court and Judge Patrick Dinkelacker, who took over the case after trial Judge Norbert Nadel retired. Hunter is scheduled to appear before Dinkelacker on July 18.
The more pertinent question, raised by clergy and community leader members of the Coalition for a Just Hamilton County in their emergency meeting held late Wednesday night, was whether or not Hunter should have been treated the same as every other criminal defendant, given her special status as a common pleas judge. When sentencing Hunter to a six-month jail sentence for her non-violent charge, Hamilton County Common Pleas Court Judge Norbert Nadel made it clear that he was imposing a harsher sentence because of her status as a judge.
Under the Ohio and U.S. Constitution, elected officials and judges are generally afforded special legal rights that should protect them from being treated the same as every criminal defendant. Ohio Supreme Court Justice Pat DeWine and Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters was extended such preferential treatment after “City Beat” reporter James McNair broke the story on August 14, 2017, that DeWine had secured a job for his son Matt with the prosecutor’s office.
ACCORDING TO the article, Senator Cecil Thomas launched an independent investigation and inevitably referred DeWine and Deters to the Ohio Supreme Court Disciplinary Counsel for sanctioning. However, they were not held accountable for their actions. The statute that governs the inappropriateness of their actions was precisely the same statute that Hunter was charged under. Their conduct is specifically prohibited under this statute, whereas in Hunter’s case there was no evidence or testimony that she violated any laws, or secured a public contract.
According to attorneys Lou Sirkin and Jennifer Branch’s arguments during court hearings in January 2016, Hunter was entitled to judicial immunity based on the nature of the claims against her, which stemmed from her rulings and administrative duties carried out in the course of her role as judge. Similarly, it would seem that equal protection statutes should have protected Hunter from being subjected to criminal charges and afforded her the same protections as Deters and DeWine, legal experts across the country agreed.
Coalition members expressed that Hunter was subjected to a system, which has no checks or balances, subject only to the power of the dominant political authority, her accusers and political adversaries. They noted that charging her criminally effectively nullified the votes of the nearly 120,000 voters who put her in office.
COMMUNITY MEMBERS and clergy in attendance on Wednesday evening organized and led Thursday’s prayer vigil. Clergy took turns praying for various aspects of the case, and surrounded Hunter in a show of strength and solidarity, offering prayer and promises to continue to stand with her in the days to come.
Pastor Damon Lynch III gave an impassioned speech stating, “It is our hope that the charges will be dropped against this innocent pastor and judge. But as members of the clergy, I feel it is our duty to commit that if she goes to jail that she doesn’t go alone. Every clergy member in this city and members of our congregations should be prepared to go with her.”
In other comments, former Cincinnati City Councilwomen Yvette Simpson said in a Facebook post about the decision to move forward with sentencing Hunter, “Jail is not a place for non-violent offenders and certainly not a place to “make an example” or “ make a point” or “make a political statement.” I shed tears for my hometown when they employ such small-minded, backward logic, rooted in hate and foolishness, patriarchy and racism. We are better, and we deserve better.’’