South Fulton’s chief municipal court judge, made famous in a “black girl magic” viral photo taken in her courtroom last year, is fighting to hold onto her job amid accusations of misconduct.
The City Council voted to fire Tiffany Sellers, saying she mistreated and had been “bullying” staff and allowed a TV crew to film in the courtroom even though it made some uncomfortable. But she’s fighting back.
“You got a rogue city council, is what you got,” said George O. Lawson Jr., the attorney representing Sellers, who has been on paid administrative leave since Feb. 21. Lawson denies all claims the City Council has made about Sellers. Councilmembers were not immediately available for comment Wednesday, as they were out of town.
Sellers and her attorney will face the city in Fulton County Superior Court on Thursday working to block the next step in her firing: A public hearing set for next week. At the hearing, Sellers and the public have 10 minutes each to speak before the City Council takes a final vote on her termination.
Sellers was hired by a vote from the City Council. Asked if Sellers might leave because the council no longer supports her, Lawson said: “She could care less what they think about her. She does her job and that’s it.”
A petition from the City Council on Feb. 20 to Sellers breaks down why they want to fire the judge. It starts with a rift between Sellers and the city’s clerk of court, who typically handles the clerical work that allows courts to function. In July, the petition said, Sellers asked the clerk of court to sit further away from her and filled the spot with a subordinate. In September, Sellers banned the clerk of court from the courtroom. It isn’t clear what precipitated the clash.
The court administrator told Sellers she was “concerned of long-term effects your directive may have on the city and the individual rights of the defendants that appear before our court,” according to the petition. The clerk of court remained banned from the courtroom, and she resigned in January.
The City Council also described Sellers hiring a court clerk who had previously worked for Sellers in a private capacity, and then harassing the woman’s supervisors who complained of the poor work the clerk delivered.
Another point of contention was Sellers allowing Vice TV/HBO in August to film in the court, even though the court administrator and the clerk of court refused to sign the release. “I can not allow either of you to ‘opt out’ of attending Court,” Sellers told them, according to the petition. When they did, the petition said, Sellers voiced her disappointment to at least one of them.
The city manager told Sellers in January that an internal investigation of that incident revealed that the “filming of the court’s operation has exacerbated disagreements, personnel issues and increased confusion regarding the Court’s administrative execution.”
Municipal courts handle things like traffic violations and low-level offenses, but they are the backbone of a local judicial system. Sellers is the first and only chief judge in the history of the city, which incorporated in 2017. Her contract, which lasts until the end of 2021, indicates her annual salary is $135,000.
After the New Jersey native graduated from University of Georgia’s law school in 2006, Sellers worked at two other firms before opening her own representing people in cases of property negligence like slip-and-falls, according to the city website.
City attorney Emilia Walker said fill-in judges have been keeping the South Fulton Municipal Court running smoothly. She said that if Sellers is terminated, the mayor will have to recommend a new chief judge.
South Fulton doesn’t have its own court facilities and uses Union City’s courtroom. It was a photo of Sellers sitting in that courtroom surrounded by eight African-American women who run the justice system in South Fulton that made her well-known.
The iconic picture published by the Atlanta Voice in June was dubbed another example of “black girl magic” — an international hashtag that became a rallying cry for black women, including those in South Fulton’s court. The sentiment of that photo was central to the short documentary filmed by HBO’s Vice TV in the courtroom.
An AJC photo series | #BlackGirlMagic
“I think all of us are genuinely invested,” Sellers told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution in June. “I know several of us live in the community, have gone to school or have been reared in the community and so there is this personal attachment to the community that I’m not certain exists in other places. It’s personal for us.”
A six-minute Vice video from September explains how Sellers and her staff try to incorporate social justice into their work.
“I really view South Fulton as this opportunity to do things right,” Sellers told Vice.
The next month, the Judicial Qualifications Commission said it was investigating the court’s practice of reducing the fines of defendants who agree to register to vote. The JQC, which investigates complaints against judges, was not immediately available for comment as to the status of that investigation. Sellers denied that she had done anything wrong at the time.
The public hearing regarding her termination will be March 19 at 3 p.m. at the Fulton County court system’s South Service Center, 5600 Stonewall Tell Road in South Fulton.
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