Highway-fighting judge wants another mile

Back in the late 1990s, I wrote a story about former DeKalb County Sheriff Sid Dorsey using his office to hire politically connected people.

Dorsey, the first black officeholder elected countywide, was vying with Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney to be the kingmaker as DeKalb changed its political hue.

I got a phone call from longtime Superior Court Judge Clarence Seeliger, who said he needed another term or two for retirement and urged me to quickly figure out which way the winds were blowing.

“I’m trying to figure out whose ring I have to kiss,” he said with a laugh.

Seeliger was kidding, of course. He’s never been much of a ring kisser. Even though the demographics of the county were quickly changing from white to black, Seeliger remains and Dorsey and McKinney are long gone. The former sheriff is in prison for having his political opponent assassinated, and McKinney was run off by voters tired of her divisive antics.

No matter how DeKalb changes, it stays the same with Chuck Seeliger. First thing, sitting judges are enormously hard to unelect and attorneys have to be gutsy or crazy to try to do it. Local lawyers worry about ending up on the bad side of a robed bully with payback on his or her mind — not only with the judge they run against, but all judges in the circuit. Second, Seeliger plays well in DeKalb, a man with a liberal under-pinning but a hard-nosed streak when it comes to sentencing some crimes.

He has sailed to re-election four times since our talk and just recently announced he will run again next year, making it clear he wants to nail down an even 40 years on the bench.

Word around the courthouse is that Angela Z. Brown, a lawyer and former recorder’s court judge and former fill-in Superior Court judge, is positioning herself to unseat a sitting judge next year. There are seven Superior Court judges up for re-election next year and none seems inclined to leave on his or her own accord.

Rumor had it that Seeliger, who would end his next term as an 80-year-old, would be her target. It makes sense; if a cheetah is figuring out which wildebeest she’s going to nail, she might was well go for the old and slow one.

“I think she thought I’d retire because of my age,” Seeliger said recently. “I was thinking mildly (of retiring). But when she announced she that might (run), I thought, ‘I’m not going to be run off.’”

For the record, Brown, a lawyer for 24 years, is thinking of running but isn’t sure against who. Brown and Seeliger had a breakfast meeting both described as “cordial,” which is political code-speak for “awkward.”

She believes Seeliger came “on behalf of all the judges to see who I was running against.” Sort of an emissary for the herd. Seeliger says he was merely on his own fact-finding mission.

Seeliger knows what it’s like to take a shot at an entrenched judge. Back in 1980, the Seattle native who came to Decatur after a stint in the Air Force announced he was running against a 30-year incumbent, State Court Judge J. Oscar Mitchell.

The notably cranky Mitchell was infamous for having sent Martin Luther King Jr. to prison on a probation violation charge that stemmed from a traffic ticket and a sit-in arrest. King worried he might be killed in a Georgia prison. The incident was in the weeks before the 1960 presidential election, and many say the efforts by John F. Kennedy campaign’s to get King released helped move many black voters away from Richard Nixon and toward JFK.

Seeliger had to self-fund his 1980 campaign because local lawyers wouldn’t be caught dead supporting him. He said the local Democratic party came down hard on him for running against Mitchell, an institution.

Manuel Maloof, the late barkeep and DeKalb political leader, approached Seeliger, the judge recalls. “He said, ‘Why, you old SOB, why are you running against a good man like that?’” Seeliger said with his best growling Maloof impersonation.

“That ended our friendship,” Seeliger said.

“Back then, the idea of retaliation was thick enough to cut with a knife,” said Dwight Thomas, who was then a young attorney who, as a black man, had a hard time getting office space with lawyers in Decatur until Seeliger took him in.

Upon election, Seeliger hired Thomas’ father, Nesby Thomas, as the county’s first black bailiff.

Soon after coming to office, Seeliger created a stir when he banished a Confederate flag that hung in his courtroom, saying it was “unacceptable in a court of law.”

In a fitting touch, Seeliger had his new bailiff carry it out.

In 1985, he defied the wishes of a former president (Jimmy Carter) and Atlanta’s mayor (Andrew Young) when he stopped the state Department of Transportation from ramming a highway through some in-town neighborhoods. He said Carter was quoted saying Seeliger was “prejudiced” — against asphalt, not people, that is. A modified, and less intrusive, Presidential Parkway was later built after mediation.

Asked about his scrappiness, Seeliger once said he grew up in a blue-collar neighborhood where he sometimes had to fight. “I wore glasses, my name was Clarence and I played the violin.”

That speaks volumes.

Seeliger acknowledges he’s no spring chicken (a point an opponent might make). He said he has people around him who would honestly let him know if he’s lost a step.

At a recent court hearing, Seeliger was listening to attorneys wage a godawful dull and complicated foreclosure fight.

A couple times his almost 75-year-old ears were messing with him. “Speak up,” he told the attorney.

But it was clear his questions helped the attorneys get to the point and moved the circuitous arguments along. It was clear it was all sinking in.