Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio
Court News Ohio

Court Indefinitely Suspended Juvenile Judge Convicted of Felony

Former Hamilton County Juvenile Judge Tracie Hunter was indefinitely suspended from the practice of law by the Supreme Court of Ohio today based on her 2014 felony conviction.

The Supreme Court suspended Hunter and gave her credit for the nine years she has served under an interim suspension. Writing for the Court majority, Justice Michael P. Donnelly noted that professional conduct rules allow an attorney to seek reinstatement after two years of an indefinite suspension. Because of the time Hunter has served, she can immediately apply for reinstatement, the opinion stated.

Hunter had contested any suspension, arguing that the criminal charges against her were politically motivated because she was the first Democrat elected as a juvenile judge in Hamilton County and she sought to implement change. The Court rejected her claims and indicated that no sitting judge convicted of a felony has received a sanction less than an indefinite suspension.

The suspension with credit for time served was recommended by the Board of Professional Conduct, which found Hunter violated five ethics rules related to the incident leading to her conviction.

Chief Justice Sharon L. Kennedy and Justice Melody Stewart joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion. Eighth District Court of Appeals Judge Sean C. Gallagher, sitting for Justice R. Patrick DeWine, also joined Justice Donnelly’s opinion.

In a separate opinion, Justice Patrick F. Fischer wrote that he agreed with the Court’s conclusion that Hunter violated the rules and should be indefinitely suspended from the practice of law, but stated that she should not receive any credit for time served under the interim suspension. Justice Fischer wrote that he could find no prior Ohio cases where a judge who committed a felony was not either disbarred or indefinitely suspended with no credit for time served.

Second District Court of Appeals Judge Ronald C. Lewis, sitting for Justice Joseph T. Deters, joined Justice Fischer’s opinion.

Justice Jennifer Brunner did not participate in the case.

Judge Reacts to Brother’s Termination Proceeding
Hunter was elected to the Hamilton County Juvenile Court in 2012. In July 2013, her brother, Stephen Hunter, was employed at the Hamilton County Juvenile Court’s Youth Center where he was alleged to have hit a youth residing at the center.

As a result of the incident, the Youth Center superintendent recommended Stephen Hunter be fired and scheduled a hearing for that purpose. On the evening that her brother was informed of the decision to hold a hearing, then-Judge Hunter emailed all the Youth Center employees, identifying a number of safety concerns, and indicated she was scheduling a closed-door meeting with the corrections officers there to discuss the issues.

The judge then emailed the superintendent and requested documents related to the Youth Center, including documents the superintendent would not normally provide to someone not directly involved in the investigation of the incident.

Once those documents were provided to the judge, she provided them to her brother. Stephen Hunter then offered the documents to his attorney prior to his termination hearing. The attorney refused to accept some of the documents, indicating it would be “unethical” to take them and that the attorney might have to file an ethics report to the Supreme Court about the person who gave Hunter the documents.

Stephen Hunter appeared with his attorney at the hearing the next morning. Hunter was eventually fired.

Based on her role in her brother’s case, Judge Hunter was indicted by a Hamilton County grand jury. In October 2014, a jury found her guilty of a single violation of R.C. 2921.42(A)(1), a fourth-degree felony for having an unlawful interest in a public contract. She was sentenced to six months in jail, ordered to pay court costs, and placed on one year of probation.

The Supreme Court then imposed an interim suspension based on the felony conviction that remained in effect until today.

Judge Challenges Conviction
Hunter appealed her conviction to the First District Court of Appeals, which affirmed the trial court decision. The Supreme Court declined to review the case. Hunter sought to overturn her conviction in federal court. The federal court granted a stay of her sentence as it considered her appeal. A federal district court magistrate recommended denying her appeal, and a federal district court judge agreed. The federal court ended the stay in 2019, and Hunter served time in jail.

Hunter appealed the decision to the Sixth U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which in July 2022 affirmed the federal district court decision. After all her efforts to overturn her conviction failed, the Office of the Disciplinary Counsel filed a complaint with the Board of Professional Conduct, alleging Hunter violated five rules of the Code of Judicial Conduct.

Before a three-member hearing panel, Hunter denied violating the rules and claimed she was wrongly convicted of having an unlawful interest in a public contract. The panel disagreed and recommended the indefinite suspension with credit for time served. The full board adopted the panel’s recommendations.

Hunter objected to the recommendation, which triggered an oral argument before the Supreme Court.

Court Assessed Law and Conduct Rules
The Court’s opinion addressed several procedural violations raised by Hunter, who claimed the board violated her rights to due process. Justice Donnelly explained that a disciplinary proceeding is neither a criminal nor a civil proceeding, and the standards for due process are not the same as a legal matter before a court.

The board only had to offer Hunter a hearing, the right to issue subpoenas, to depose witnesses, and “the opportunity for preparation to explain the circumstances surrounding her actions.” The Court noted Hunter was granted all her hearing rights and given eight weeks to submit a posthearing brief to make her points. The Court concluded that it could not find that her rights were infringed.

The opinion also explained that under R.C. 2921.42(A)(1), a public official may not authorize or employ “the authority or influence of the public official’s office to secure authorization of any public contract” in which the official or any family member has an interest. Hunter maintained her actions did not violate that law.

The Court noted that a conviction is “conclusive evidence” that the judge violated the judicial conduct rule prohibiting a judge from engaging in conduct that violated the law. The opinion also noted Hunter cannot challenge the facts of her conviction in a disciplinary proceeding.

The Court agreed that Hunter violated the law and also broke the rules that require a judge to act in a manner that promotes public confidence in the judiciary, prohibits a judge from abusing the prestige of the office for the personal or economic interests of the judge, and prevents a judge from permitting a family, social, political, or financial interest to influence a judge’s conduct. The Court also found she violated the rule against a judge knowingly disclosing or using nonpublic information acquired in a judicial capacity for any purpose unrelated to the judge’s duty.

Court Considered Sanction
When considering the sanction in a disciplinary case, the Court assesses aggravating circumstances that could increase the penalty and mitigating factors that could lead to a lesser sanction.

The board found Hunter acted with a selfish motive when attempting to assist her brother and that she refused to acknowledge the wrongful nature of her conduct. The board also found that she provided extensive evidence of her good character and reputation, and had endured other penalties for her behavior including losing her judicial office, spending time in jail, paying $17,000 in court costs, and having her law license suspended for nine years.

The opinion noted that in every case before the Court in which a sitting judge committed a felony, the Court has either disbarred or indefinitely suspended the judge. The Court stated that Hunter’s misconduct “arose from a relatively brief, isolated incident,” and is not as egregious as the felony offenses by those judges who were disbarred, and that an indefinite suspension is appropriate.

Former Judge Should Serve Suspension Time, Concurring and Dissenting Opinion Maintained
In his opinion concurring in part and dissenting in part, Justice Fischer maintained that because Hunter committed a felony offense, acted with a selfish motive, and took no responsibility for her actions while “consistently and unfairly blam[ing] others for her prosecution and hardships,” she should be indefinitely suspended with no credit for time served, a sanction that is consistent with Ohio case law. Ohio “judges are held to the highest possible standard of ethical conduct” and the Court had either imposed a sanction of disbarment or indefinite suspension with no credit for interim suspensions on judges who have committed a felony offense, he wrote.

Justice Fischer noted that Hunter has blamed the Court, the board, the disciplinary counsel, and other legal professionals for her situation. And while she claims she is innocent, he wrote that Hunter “does not deny taking some of the actions that led to her conviction.”  

“While Hunter claims that her conviction is the result of a vendetta against her, she cannot deny and we cannot ignore that a 12-person jury, three appellate-court judges, one federal magistrate, and one federal district-court judge have upheld Hunter’s conviction based on the evidence presented against her. While Hunter is certainly free to believe that she committed no wrongdoing, she cannot deny that all minds that have reviewed the evidence in her case disagree,” he wrote.

Justice Fischer pointed out that Hunter abused her judicial position for the benefit of her brother in an isolated incident, but one incident is enough. He acknowledged that Hunter had extensive testimony of her good character and reputation, but noted “[m]itigating factors cannot overshadow felonious conduct by a judge, because such conduct violates the public’s trust and injures the public’s confidence in the judiciary.”

2023-0472. Disciplinary Counsel v. Hunter, Slip Opinion No. 2023-Ohio-4168.

Video camera icon View oral argument video of this case.

Please note: Opinion summaries are prepared by the Office of Public Information for the general public and news media. Opinion summaries are not prepared for every opinion, but only for noteworthy cases. Opinion summaries are not to be considered as official headnotes or syllabi of court opinions. The full text of this and other court opinions are available online.

Adobe PDF PDF files may be viewed, printed, and searched using the free Acrobat® Reader
Acrobat Reader is a trademark of Adobe Systems Incorporated.