On Sept. 8, Hamilton County Juvenile Court Judge Tracie Marie Hunter will finally walk from the court of public opinion into the Hamilton County Common Pleas courtroom of Judge Norbert A. Nadel to defend herself, her reputation, her seat on the bench and, she’d tell us, her life’s work against nine felony charges handed down by a grand jury on Jan. 10 and Jan. 14, when a final charge was added.
In early June 2013, I started what would be a 13-month journey to write a long-form narrative magazine profile of Judge Hunter; that is, a combination of personal observations, conversations and folks who’d speak on the record about her in any capacity all while keeping close track of the labyrinthine legal maze she constantly seems to be lost within.
There were all the media lawsuits brought against her — four by the Cincinnati Enquirer — because the judge tried closing her courtroom to its reporters; then there was a suit by WCPO Channel 9 for access and filming juveniles above the waist.
It hasn’t sat well with the age-old status quo machinations of juvenile court that Judge Hunter vociferously advocates protecting the identities of juvenile offenders — a tactic I can now say I squarely agree with — and tried against all odds and legal maneuvers to block the printing or broadcast of their names and faces or that of their parents and guardians. She also rallied against the media showing shackled juvenile offenders.
What’s more obtuse and harder to get at is the pervasive feeling throughout the halls, courtrooms and back room conversations snaking through the Hamilton County justice system about how Judge Hunter came to be labeled “crazy,” as many people described her to me, and how knocking her off that coveted juvenile court bench with millions of dollars and hundreds of staff at its disposal has become tantamount to an old-school witch hunt worthy of a Nathaniel Hawthorne treatment.
Now, it can be said: The march to get Judge Hunter’s seat is indeed a witch hunt playing out at turns so hatefully and so blatantly that we all know it, and most of us are gobsmacked by how obsessive/compulsive certain factions have become in going after Judge Hunter.
(Some will argue Hamilton County Prosecutor Joe Deters is doing the county Republican Party’s bidding in his prosecution of Hunter. Others point squarely at Republican Party President Alex Triantafilou, still smarting from his party’s loss of the domination of the juvenile bench, the election and the lawsuit resulting in Hunter’s appointment to that bench. Some feel it’s merely the pervasive racism within our courts.)
What is it about this woman that draws such a divisive line right smack down the middle of race, class, gender and politics?
An easily digestible and wholly palatable explanation — especially in this county of white male control freaks on both sides of the aisle — would be to chalk up the profound dislike of Judge Hunter to mere politics.
After all, Republicans have tightly controlled this county’s judiciary for eons, so it must’ve been all kinds of shock — cultural, racial, anatomical — when Hunter threw her hat in the electoral ring in early 2010.
Judge Hunter has chosen to eschew help from other judges — women, blacks, black women — and clings mostly to the throngs of faith-based supporters who’ve shown up at her pre-trial hearings and who leave exclamation-pointed well wishes on a Judge Hunter Facebook support page.
As far as I could tell, she remains a lone wolf; Jesus Christ is her sole counsel and guiding force.
In a nation of people who love to beseech God to bless America and who throw God’s name around like it will get us the best seat in the best restaurants, there is palatable disdain for Judge Hunter’s public proclamations of her Christianity and her faith that God is directing all facets of her life.
This was a constant sticking point for people reaching for easy understanding of Judge Hunter and how she “operates.”
I never once saw her mix the two — church and state — while she was on the bench; however, I had to try like hell to keep up with what answers to my questions were strictly her speaking and which were extrapolations from Scripture.
But that’s all part of the writer’s job — to figure out the way her subjects speak, think, feel and move.
Before I was assigned the Hunter story I thought, probably like everyone else, that this woman should go away. Take her lumps and losses and get lost. I was annoyed whenever I’d see she was still embroiled in her lawsuit against the Hamilton County Board of Elections and how she was forcing a recount months and months after the election.
I wanted her to just leave it alone.
That is precisely how blacks and many black women — myself especially — in America have been socialized to think and behave: Take what you get, keep it moving, do not ever buck the system, go away and internalize it all and drive yourself literally insane.
So when Judge Hunter would just not let go of any of it — the seat, the barring media from her courtroom without prior written consent, the naming of juveniles — I saw firsthand how truly exhausting and numbing a way of life this must be for her. I saw how (if she is indeed certifiably crazy) she’s been rendered so by, yes, “The System,” that all-inclusive yet hard to pinpoint collection of people, rules, buildings and laws conspiring against progressive, history-making change.
During my reporting of the Hunter story (“The Increasingly Complicated Trials of Tracie Hunter,” Cincinnati Magazine, September 2014 issue), I’ve always said the only “wrong” thing I could see Judge Hunter doing was going into battle seemingly alone.
I couldn’t discern a rabbi, that one trusted person whose ear and shoulder she had and whose advice she could unflinchingly trust.
She would say her rabbi is God.
I will say that in Hamilton County she needs God and an army. Then again, maybe her armies do not look like our armies. Maybe hers don’t don suits, ties, robes.
Crazy, isn’t it?
CONTACT KATHY Y. WILSON: firstname.lastname@example.org