A Fulton County Superior Court judge ruled Thursday that the city of South Fulton may continue its effort to fire its chief municipal judge.
The ruling concerns the future of Tiffany Sellers, who is fighting claims by the city that she mistreated court staff, including “bullying” some workers and allowing a TV crew to film in the courtroom even though it made some uncomfortable.
After hearing statements from both sides Thursday, Fulton Superior Court’s Judge Rachel K. Krause ruled against a request to block a hearing next week that could lead to the firing of Sellers.
Krause’s decision means the city will go forward with a public hearing Tuesday during which the embattled judge and members of the public will have 10 minutes each to speak. Afterward, the City Council will take a final vote on her termination.
Krause said she was “sympathetic” to the argument by Sellers’ attorney George O. Lawson Jr. that the city’s process had issues.
Lawson said the City Council did not properly vote on firing Sellers, claiming it did so in private, possibly making it a violation of open meetings laws. He also said that the current process to fire a municipal judge isn’t fair and at times indicated he and Sellers might fight the firing on those grounds.
“What we have in the city of South Fulton is we have a legislative branch of government that is all-powerful, all-knowing and all-doing (in) everything that it does,” Lawson said.
He tried to block the Tuesday hearing because he said it was “useless” to argue that the council to keep Sellers after council members had already decided to fire her. “The city doesn’t want her to have a … due-process hearing,” he said, noting that witnesses nor evidence will be presented at next week’s hearing. The South Fulton City Council, which hired Sellers, voted Feb. 20 to fire her.
“We hope to move forward in good faith with Judge Sellers,” said city attorney Emilia Walker after court, who added that the Tuesday hearing will go on as planned.
Krause said Sellers must be ready to “hopefully convince the City Council they made a mistake, if that’s your belief.”
Sellers, who declined to comment after the hearing, has been suspended with pay since Feb. 21. Her contract, which lasts until the end of 2021, indicates her annual salary is $135,000.
Councilwoman Carmalitha Gumbs answered emailed questions Thursday from The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, saying she proposed the council fire Seller because the judge “had begun taping a reality show about the City of South Fulton’s Municipal Court without our knowledge.”
Gumbs, who sits on the inaugural City Council, said the filming meant more to the nearly three-year-old city than it would to more-established municipalities. “I was concerned because as a new City we’ve not yet had an opportunity to establish our image and brand. When we learned that the Judge had signed a contract with the production company, we requested to see a contract, but it was never received, further fueling the Council’s concerns. This was the beginning of the process that led to my signing the petition for the judge’s termination.”
During that process, Gumbs said she learned about the allegations of Sellers mistreating certain staff members after the city manager investigated “multiple HR complaints” against the judge. Even with the complaints, Gumbs thinks Sellers has done a “great job establishing our municipal court,” which handles things like traffic violations and low-level offenses.
As part of an interview for HBO’s series Vice TV, Sellers and her staff said last year that they viewed the new court system as a chance to start fresh and also spoke about doing it with a combination rarely seen in America: The city of 100,000 residents had a criminal justice system run entirely by eight black women.
Sellers and the court staff became famous online when an iconic picture of the eight women published by the Atlanta Voice in June was dubbed another instance of “black girl magic” — an international hashtag turned rallying cry for black women.
“I really view South Fulton as this opportunity to do things right,” Sellers told Vice.
But it turns out that short video piece filmed in the courtroom was one of the many things causing tension behind the scenes.
“The interior structure of the court had pretty much collapsed,” city attorney Walker said in court Thursday. She added that one of the women who resigned “is afraid to be in the same room as the judge.”
» An AJC photo series | #BlackGirlMagic
As laid out in a petition by the City Council, personnel issues became visible when Sellers banned her clerk of court from the courtroom.
When it came time for the Vice TV/HBO filming in August, the court administrator and the clerk of court refused to sign a release allowing themselves to be filmed.
“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 told the court administrator that she disappointed.
Since then, both the clerk of court and the court administrator resigned.
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.”
And this isn’t the first time Sellers has publicly been in trouble over how she runs her court.
In October, 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 available Wednesday or Thursday to speak to the status of that investigation. Sellers denied that she had done anything wrong at the time.
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