When the opioid epidemic invaded the community – and the courtroom – Lucas County Common Pleas Judge Stacy Cook led the charge to get a Drug Court established in an attempt to save lives.
Just one year after two Drug Courts launched – one under Judge Cook and the other under Judge Ian English – Drug Courts Coordinator Renee Craft abruptly resigned and, not long after, Judge Cook stepped down as well.
While Judge Cook initially told The Blade she resigned because the judges had not referred enough defendants to Drug Court, records requested by The Blade tell a different story.
In her exit interview, Ms. Craft told court officials that she'd been bullied and intimidated by Judge Cook, that she felt she was in a “hostile” work environment and could not continue working under those conditions.
“It was an abusive work relationship,” Ms. Craft said in the interview with Court Administrator Brian Patrick and Human Resources Director Phyllis Cole.
Ms. Craft also said she feared for the safety of some Drug Court participants – and for her social work license – because of the extent to which Judge Cook discussed medically assisted treatment with Drug Court defendants. She said that's an issue that was for the treatment provider and the individual to determine, not the court.
Judge Cook, who has been on the Common Pleas bench since January, 2007, said she was blindsided by the allegations and never prescribed medication.
“I obviously can't deny anybody's opinion of me or feeling,” Judge Cook said. “I can tell you I never had displeasure with her work. I thought she was a very, very good working employee – very energetic and passionate about the Drug Court. I found her to be pleasant always to a fault.”
Still, the statements made by Ms. Craft after she tendered her resignation May 31, were shared with the other nine Common Pleas judges. On June 12, Administrative Judge Gene Zmuda called an emergency meeting of the judges to discuss it.
“We've never had a court employee resign because of how she was treated,” Judge Zmuda said. “And whatever the consequence of that was, that needs to be addressed by the court.”
Judge Cook resigned from Drug Court later the same day.
She said she was “forced” to resign from the specialized docket she'd tried for years to create. She claims that long before Ms. Craft’s resignation, some of her fellow judges did not want her on the Drug Court or simply didn't want a Drug Court – an intensive, five-phase program designed to assist offenders who commit crimes because of their addiction with drug treatment, sober living, and other elements to long-term sobriety.
Participants in the voluntary program meet regularly with their treatment team and judge in the courtroom.
“Several of the judges were very vocal about their personal distaste for Drug Court in general and were very comfortable making statements with regard to their desire to not have me be a part of the program,” Judge Cook said.
Asked why, she said the comment was made, “If you want to be a social worker, leave the bench and go be a social worker.”
The rift among the judges prompted retired Ohio Supreme Court Justice Paul Pfeifer to make two trips to Toledo in August in an attempt to “listen” and “lower the temperature,” as he put it.
The judges make up one court, he said, and, despite “natural tensions and disagreements” that occur in any group, they need to work together.
“They may have some strong disagreements about how each other does their job, and in a multi-judge court there are always struggles with uniformity – and how much uniformity is required – because these 10 people are independently elected to the same position,” said Justice Pfeifer, who is now executive director of the Ohio Judicial Conference, an organization that provides input to the state legislature on issues that affect the judiciary.
“It's no different than service to the Supreme Court,” Justice Pfeifer said. “There are seven people at the table. You can disagree with them, but their vote counts just as much as yours, and they have just as much right to be there as you do.”
Judge Zmuda said the court agreed it needed to find a way to work together better.
Judge Stacy Cook listens to testimony during the Ray Abou-Arab arson/murder trial at the Lucas County Common Pleas Court in Toledo.
“There is no doubt that Judge Cook's resignation and the consequence of that has increased the tension amongst the judges,” he said. “There isn't a judge here who wouldn't acknowledge that.”
Judge Zmuda said the judges voted Aug. 21 to retain Judge English as the sole Drug Court judge. They agreed to reduce his regular criminal and civil caseload by half to give him the time to take on the added work.
They also agreed to make his civil bailiff, Nikki Kolasinski, the drug court coordinator, while his criminal bailiff, Willie Ann Ware, is now the Drug Court bailiff. Both staff members are to receive a $5,000 stipend for their additional duties.
The court also created a new position in the probation department for a unit manager who will perform some of the coordinator's duties. Judge Zmuda said part of this new employee's role will be to help “replicate Drug Court policies among the other nine” judges so all of the courts can implement the practices for drug-addicted offenders, even those who may not qualify for Drug Court.
Judge English said he hopes to bring the Drug Court's participant numbers to 100 in its second year. The original plan had called for Judge English and Judge Cook to each have 120 participants eventually.
Judge English said he strives in Drug Court to listen to members of the treatment team – professionals who are skilled in drug and alcohol treatment, transitional housing, and supervision. He's the judge and makes the decisions, but it's not a traditional court.
“In Drug Court, we all sit at the same table,” Judge English said. “That's the issue.”
He said he was unaware Ms. Craft was under stress. She did not share that with him, and, by her own account, did not share that with Judge Cook either.
Judge Cook provided copies of text messages and emails she exchanged with Ms. Craft right up until the time she left – communications during the work day and in the evenings that dealt with Drug Court matters but also included friendly banter about children, health issues, and life in general.
The judge said she stands by her record.
“My numbers were strong with people in sobriety,” Judge Cook said. “Many of my people had made it into Phase 4 in the sequential timeframe that they should have without many glitches. People were putting their families back together. People were getting housing. People were getting employed. Licenses were obtained. They were getting back on the grid.”
In a telephone interview, Ms. Craft said she had advocated for a single Drug Court to make the program consistent for all participants, treatment team, and staff.
Still, she said she had no idea Judge Cook would be forced to resign because of her statements. She said she stands by what she said in her exit interview and emphasized that she left for the good of Drug Court.
Lucas County Common Pleas Court Judges Stacy Cook, left, and Ian English, participate in a panel discussion about about drug court, Wednesday, April 27, 2016, at the Toledo Bar Association office in Toledo.
“I have respect for all of the judges, even her,” Ms. Craft said. “She has a lot to offer our community. I feel that from the bottom of my heart.”
Ms. Craft's complaints were not the first to be made about Judge Cook.
Last year, Court Deputy Terry Wozniak filed a complaint with the Ohio Supreme Court claiming Judge Cook acted unprofessionally and unethically when she “verbally attacked” him for removing a criminal defendant from her courtroom without notifying her or one of her bailiffs. Federal immigration enforcement agents had been waiting to pick up the defendant, who was in this country illegally, and Mr. Wozniak said he quietly brought the man out of the courtroom at his supervisor's direction.
Judge Cook admits she was angry. The defendant was going to enter a plea and be sentenced that day – something that needed to happen before ICE could deport him. When she confronted Mr. Wozniak, he was “disrespectful,” she said, telling her that the “feds” wanted the man.
A letter to Mr. Wozniak from the Disciplinary Counsel of the Ohio Supreme Court dated Nov. 17, 2016, concluded that Judge Cook had done nothing wrong.
“Judge Cook can and must establish policies for her courtroom,” the letter stated. “The evidence does not suggest that Judge Cook engaged in misconduct by attempting to reinforce such policies in her discussion with you.”
After the investigation ended, she apologized to Mr. Wozniak, a former Toledo police officer.
He said he wished Disciplinary Counsel had talked with him and others who witnessed the incident before drawing its conclusion.
“Had the Supreme Court taken my complaint seriously, they would have come to Toledo and talked to these people, and possibly this incident with Renee Craft could have been avoided,” he said.
Meanwhile, Justice Pfeifer said he anticipates a return trip to Lucas County.
“I want to help them find a way to diminish the issues,” he said. “In any group like that there will always be issues and differences of opinion on important matters.”
“Having come from 24 years on the Supreme Court, unfortunately I saw from that vantage point the final stages of things that ended badly from time to time for judges so that caused me to believe that there certainly could and should be a role for the Judicial Conference.”
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