Thursday, December 19, 2002

Judge Ann Marie Tracey

Lifting her own gag order


Several years ago, before I knew anything about her, I found myself headed for Judge Ann Marie Tracey's courtroom. As a defendant.

I was innocent, of course. As were my colleagues who participated in a story about cosmetic surgery, which featured before and after pictures of the plaintiff's nose job. The woman said we could use the pictures and signed a photo release, then claimed to be surprised and horrified to see them in print. We referred to it as the Pinocchio versus Us case. But we didn't really think it was funny. None of us had ever been sued before. We were nervous.

The ugly spectrum

I called some friends in the law biz to find out what kind of judge we'd drawn. A good one, I was told. Smart. Thoughtful. Principled. Tough. A stickler for the law. Very professional, said our own lawyer, adding, "For God's sake, Laura, if you have to say anything, don't call the plaintiff Pinocchio."

The judge dismissed the case. It was, I am certain, not even a blip on her radar screen. She has dealt with knottier legal problems during her nearly 14 years on the Common Pleas Court bench. Her workload has included the whole ugly criminal spectrum. Abuse. Abduction. Rape. Murder. Stupidity and evil. Greed and brutality.

"It takes some work," she says, "to see beyond the volume and the categories of cases, to see the people, not the crime." She is a faithful judicial customer of rehabilitation options. "If you limit crime fighting to just jails, it's a self-fulfilling prophecy."

Ohio's Chief Justice Thomas Moyer says, "We have over 700 judges in Ohio, and I can't think of anyone who has a keener interest in justice. She's spent countless hours of personal time trying to improve the system." For everybody. She has served on committees on gender, diversity, substance abuse and victims' assistance.

And now this good judge is leaving the bench to teach ethics and business law at Xavier University. Gov. Bob Taft will appoint somebody to take her place in August. Although the Democrat judge and the Republican governor have some history together - "I was his mentor when he was in law school" - there's little chance he'll replace her with somebody from her own party. This, she regrets. But she is starting a new life with attorney Dan Buckley, whom she will marry Dec. 28. She is enthusiastic about teaching. Plus, after 14 years, she will be free to enter the debate, wrestle with the law publicly.

For instance, she doesn't believe in the death penalty. But she has imposed it. "When you're a judge it's not what you think - it's what the law says. "

She says she has always been bothered by a case in which a woman was accused of killing an abusive boyfriend. "It was horrible, a sad story," the judge says.

But the woman was convicted by a jury of her peers, and the law was very clear on the penalty for her offense. The judge sentenced her to prison.

Tough. Principled.

Then Judge Ann Marie Tracey returned to her chambers, carefully shut the door.

And cried.

E-mail or phone 768-8393.

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