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Local 12 Investigation of Judge Tracie Hunter
HAMILTON COUNTY, Ohio (Jeff Hirsh) -- It took an 18 month fight for her to get to the bench, and in the following year and a half as juvenile court judge in Hamilton County, Tracie Hunter has been no stranger to controversy.
Local 12 brings you a look into just what is happening in her courtroom.
Its a courtroom that news reporters are often excluded from by Judge Hunter. Jeff Hirsh and photographer Dan Cavins have the exclusive Local 12 News investigation.
It was, to say the least, an unusual session: Tracie Hunter became judge and prosecutor running a contempt hearing against attorney Jay Clark.
Hunter called people to testify, and asked them questions. But if a lawyer objected, Hunter would either sustain or overrule her own questions to her own witnesses.
Bill Gallagher was Clark's attorney at the hearing:
He said, "You sort of question whether you're in a true courtroom. You've heard of Star Chamber type of deals, that's sort of what I felt was going on."
Judge Hunter asked in the proceedings, "Did your Honor, Judge Tracie Hunter, tell you what to say at today's proceeding?"
Gallagher continues, "You weren't sure what witnesses would come next, you weren't sure what was going to be done next and who you turned to for help if the judge is the one calling the witnesses and making the decisions."
This saga involving attorney Jay Clark is one of Tracie Hunter's many controversies, one the public has not seen. The issue here is whether Clark had been properly notified of a time change or was deliberately late for a hearing.
Clark's attorney, Bill Gallagher, said an independent officer, not Judge Hunter, should decide.
Attorney Jay Clark said, "And I think she forgot that she was elected and not appointed or anointed, or white smoke sent up. She's a common pleas judge. She's not lord master of everything she has contact with."
Of course Clark and his attorney Bill Gallagher were involved in the case, so you'd expect them not to be happy. Local 12 took the videotape of that hearing to an independent set of eyes.
Marty Pinales is not only a respected Cincinnati lawyer but is also past president of the National Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. Safe to say he's seen it all, or at least he has now.
He said, "It was bizarre at best. It was one of the most unusual things Ive ever seen in 45 years of practice. It was at times comical at times pathetic. It was a hearing like none other."
Tracie Hunter's road to the bench was a rocky one. On the ballot in 2010, but not sworn in until May, 2012, there was a bitter court fight over some contested ballots, which Hunter ultimately won.
Pinales said, "The best comment I can give is that the manner in which she came to the bench may have made her feel that everyone was against her and they were at the beginning."
But once on the bench, the judge found herself the center of concern. Hunter has been named in at least two dozen lawsuits or complaints most of them filed by the public defender's office saying she unnecessarily delayed decisions in about 20 cases potentially leaving children in limbo over custody or adoption. She's been sued by news media outlets over courtroom and document access. Allegations of backdating case filings are being investigated by the special prosecutor's office.
Judge Hunter is not sitting back and just taking the criticism. She's asked the Ohio Supreme Court to throw out a contempt of court ruling against her in the media access case that contempt ruling by an appeals court.
Hunter has also forwarded 75 pages of documents to the Supreme Court about her caseload. She is claiming another juvenile court judge, the prosecutor's office, and the public defender's office have purposefully misled the Supreme Court about Hunter's cases forcing her to spend hours and days researching frivolous claims in order to provide accurate information.
As for the allegations of back dating case documents, Hunter calls those frivolous and unmerited allegations which are part of harassment and attacks against the judge by the Prosecutor's office.
But Local 12 News has learned of another allegation of back dating. This one involving a phone message.
An internal memo from the prosecutor's office, sent to the special prosecutor, details a voice mail left by Judge Hunter's staff for attorney Jay Clark's voice mail regarding a different hearing. The memo states, "The caller attempts to deceive Mr. Clark about the date the call was made. The answering machine time called function exposes this act of dishonesty."
In a juvenile court entry, Judge Hunter says, "Clark failed to appear despite several attempts by court personnel to contact him. Bailiff left message 8/19/2013 on voicemail."
But Clark says the answering machine's record shows the message recorded August 21st at 8:40 a.m.
Clark said, "I think that kind of speaks for itself. That kind of suggests there's a serious problem in her courtroom."
Judge Tracie Hunter is under the microscope. Local 12's Jeff Hirsh has spoken with plenty of lawyers and courtroom observers who believe Hunter may have been well intended, but had limited courtroom experience before her surprise election, and is simply in over her head. Now she is lashing out at critics instead of asking for help.
Ultimately, after a hearing which lasted more than an hour, Judge Hunter dismissed the contempt charge against attorney Clark.
Local 12 News has been requesting an interview with Judge Hunter since September 6th. She responded to a third e-mail request on October 14th saying she would respond to questions we had submitted to her via e-mail, quoting her now, "As soon as my schedule permits."
Three weeks later, after she gave an on-camera interview to another local media outlet on November 3rd, Local 12 asked yet again for an interview with her and even postponed the broadcast of this report to give her additional time to respond.
Wednesday, Judge Hunter responded to Local 12's fifth and latest e-mail requesting an interview, telling us she has been out of the office on bereavement for the last two weeks following the death of her father. In a separate press release issued Wednesday by her office, the judge promoted the fact that she attended a day-long judicial initiative meeting in Columbus last Wednesday.
Our request for an interview with her about this story remains open.