After working for 20 years as a criminal defense attorney, Rodney Harris is running for Judge of the Hamilton County Municipal Court, District 2, a diverse district in the city of Cincinnati, Ohio. He believes “there is no better person and no better time for a judge who will bring justice for all.
HTM: What are some of the biggest lessons you’ve learned over the course of your 20-year career as a criminal defense attorney?
RH: That it’s never like you think it is. You may go into it and see a certain profile and think, ‘Well this is how it happened,’ but you have to take your time and listen. Everybody has their own story and everybody has their own issues and if you’ve done it for a long time, a lot of times you want to put the cart before the horse and just assume to cut them off. But you have to listen and judge each and every case on its individual merit. You have to look at each case with a fresh set of eyes and give everyone a fair chance. Be patient, listen to each individuals story and be committed to whatever you’re doing in that courtroom, understanding that you’ve got somebody’s liberty at stake.
When I took over the public defender’s office, we really pushed on the staff to represent people the way we would want one of our family members to be represented. Just the small things like being attentive to your client and making sure they have everything. Those are the biggest things I’ve learned over 20 years … ultimately how to treat people.
Doing what I do, you represent a lot of good people but you represent some people that have made some bad judgments and a few are just bad people. But you still have to do right by them and be fair to them.
Be compassionate and understanding that a jail sentence isn’t necessary on every conviction. Sometimes the best sentence may be to have the person pick up trash and let their friends see the consequences of some of the mistakes they’ve made. I think our system has to be more creative that way because every week we have issues with our jail being overcrowded. So what that means is that we have to find alternatives other than just sending people to jail and locking them up. It could be other consequences that could be as productive to our community versus having somebody take up a jail bed. We have to be far more compassionate and look at alternative ways of dealing with people.
HTM: Being that you are a Black attorney, with that much power, you almost can’t be ‘too’ Black.
RH: But what you can be is compassionate. I hear a lot of people say ‘I’m going to vote for you because you’re Black.’ And I say, don’t vote for me because I’m Black. Vote for me because I’m the best candidate. Vote for me because you trust me and you see me being involved. Vote for me because I’m competent and compassionate. Vote for me because you believe I’ll be fair and just and I’ll demand equal and exact justice every time.
My district is a diverse district and I believe that if I’m given the opportunity, I can sit over it and be fair to all. I’m very proud of who I am, what my family looks like, what my mother and father look like but that’s not all that I am. So, I wouldn’t say that you can’t be too Black, but what I would say is be too fair. Where a person is not judged by how they talk or how they dress, but just being fair across the board and having the appropriate level of compassion.
HTM: Why are you running for Municipal Court Judge?
RH: I’ve been practicing law for 20 years. And for the 20 years that I’ve been practicing, I’ve truly been on the front lines. And what I mean by that is that I’m in court every day. And after you sit there for 20 years, and you’re watching judges who have a little more than six years’ experience and a party endorsement and they don’t have any respect for the system … they treat the parties disrespectfully, they treat the attorneys disrespectfully and after you sit there long enough, you realize, ‘I can do better than that.’ That’s why I’m motivated to do what I’m doing right now.
As a defense attorney, you definitely have an effect on the system and people’s lives. But as a defense attorney, you are always working to get the prosecutor to agree with you and finally to get the judge to see it your way. As a judge, you don’t necessarily have to get the prosecutor and defense attorney to agree with you. You can do what the law dictates and you can do what’s right by the community. When I saw that the two major parties put forth candidates that had little to no involvement in our community and then we’re supposed to rubber stamp them and stand in front of them and let them judge us … I couldn’t do it. I think it’s time for us to have a judge who can see things from the point of view of someone who has stood on the front lines.
The sole purpose of the judge is to keep the state within its bounds. You have to have someone who is willing to push back. You need someone who is willing to stand in the middle and be impartial.
HTM: What has inspired you to fight for the underserved/underrepresented community?
RH: You see so many times where people just don’t get a fair chance. Before I took over the felony division, you would have attorneys who were not going to see their clients – two and three and four months at a time. We implemented rules where you have to go visit your clients every 20 days, with the idea that that’s typically the turnaround between court dates – so your attorney is coming to see you before you go to court again. You have to have a file. It was attorney’s walking around representing people who didn’t even have a file. How could they keep up with what’s going on and motions that needed to be filed? All these things weren’t happening. And it’s sad, but many of the people look like you and me. Many of the people that we’re working for are African-American people that haven’t had as much success as they want in the community in general. Making sure that they have a fair chance. Making sure that those scales are balanced and they’re not leaning one way – that’s what really motivated me.
The whole goal is to leave a bigger footprint. What are people going to think of me when I’m dead and gone. I want it to be that Rodney came down to the public defender’s office and changed everything. Rodney ascended to the bench and people knew that when they walked into his courtroom that they were going to get a fair result. That’s what motivates me to continue working for the underserved and the underrepresented.
HTM: We appreciate that very much. Tell us how it felt when you became the first Black man to become the Director of the felony division of the Hamilton County Public Defender’s Office in 2014?
RH: Very, very proud. Because I know a lot of great African-American men who have worked in that office. It was truly an honor but what I’m prouder of is that today one-third of that division is African-American. We started out with two, now we have six African-American attorneys on staff. Half of our paralegal are minorities. We have two full-time investigators – one of them are minorities. So not only was I proud to be the first African-American director, I was also proud of the level of responsibility I was given to remake the division to be more reflective of our community.
HTM: You’ve mentioned the Ray Tensing trail and how it led you to ABC, CBS, NBC, Fox, all those networks … why is there seemingly no justice for Sam Dubose?
RH: I wouldn’t even leave it at Sam Dubose. If you look at the cases across the country, whether its South Carolina, Minneapolis or wherever you look – I think part of the problem is the standard which must be proven in order to convict a police officer of an unlawful use of force. The standard is a very high standard and part of the reason it’s a problem because the standard is such that when they look back on it to replay it, the standard is not an objective standard of what would a reasonable officer do under the circumstances. It’s what would a reasonable officer, with the same training, with the same experience, have done. So, if you were improperly trained, you’re not going to be compared on a standard of someone who was properly trained. You’re going to be compared on the standard of someone who was improperly trained. And across the country it’s been shown that that’s a very high standard to beat.
I think that maybe it’s time for our U.S. Supreme Court, who dictates the standard, to look at it again and see if that standard needs to change. With the Tensing case, everybody recognizes that that’s a terrible shooting. I don’t care if you are pro-Tensing, against Tensing, that’s a bad shooting and we don’t want citizens to be subjected to that. But what we need to do is make sure the law is in a way that that’s not legal.
The other thing is the implicit bias. My proposal would be to do a lot of things that are done in federal court now in making sure that when jurors come in that they are also given information about implicit bias.
As a Black man, it’s something that I have to watch too. All of us have our biases that we carry with us but what we have to do is acknowledge them and then address them.
HTM: What advice would you give Black youth looking to have a career in the legal field?
RH: Every day you wake up, work on and build your character. Your character pulls you through. Make sure you are trustworthy and a team player. I would also tell them to be aware of the consequences of your actions and be as well rounded as you can. Law touches everything so be well rounded and strive to be great in everything you do.