Clarification: In a story that appeared on Wednesday’s front page headlined “‘I am not a bully’: Judge will appeal firing,” a description of a verbal exchange between South Fulton Mayor pro-tem Mark Baker and former Municipal Court Judge Tiffany Sellers was misleading. During the hearing about her firing, the Mayor pro-tem did not stand, but spoke over Sellers to tell her she was “out of order” as she was asking to enter an objection into the record.
The city of South Fulton fired its first chief municipal judge Tuesday, claiming she was “bullying” some workers and had approved filming a reality television show in her court without the city’s knowledge.
The South Fulton City Council claimed Tiffany Sellers, who has held the judgeship since the city was created in 2017, mistreated court staff, leading two to resign.
About 80 of the city’s 100,000 residents attended Tuesday’s special hearing about the firing, and 14 spoke in her defense during public comments.
“I am not a bully and any claims to the contrary are slanderous and false,” said Sellers. The City Council originally hired Sellers, whose contract was set to pay her $135,000 a year through 2021.
The court she headed dealt with cases of things like traffic violations and low-level offenses, but that means Sellers was sometimes the first city official many residents met.
The idea of a first impression was important to Sellers, who, along with seven other black women wanted to run a court focused on treating people fairly. A photo of the black women who ran the city’s criminal justice system was published by the Atlanta Voice in June and went viral online, dubbed another example of “black girl magic” — an international hashtag that became a rallying cry for black women.
With Sellers’ departure, only half of the women from the photo remain. Two of the departed justice workers — a clerk of the court and court administrator — cited Sellers as their reason for leaving.
At the time, the picture brought great notoriety to the court, and with that came 20 to 30 television offers. Sellers said she and two other court employees signed an exclusivity deal for the “development of an idea of a show” but not a full contract.
“We had no idea that the council was against the show,” Sellers said. Once they did realize that the council wasn’t OK with the show, Sellers said all three terminated their deal with the production company.
A spokeswoman with the production company, Good Caper Content with ITV America, said Tuesday that the working title of the reality show was “Women in Black,” but filming was nixed even before the current issues came to light.
Councilwoman Carmalitha Gumbs previously told The Atlanta Journal-Constitution that she proposed the council fire Sellers because the judge “had begun taping a reality show about the City of South Fulton’s Municipal Court without our knowledge.”
The hearing Tuesday was jumbled and, at times, testy. It was run by Mayor pro-tem Mark Baker, who spoke over Sellers to tell her she was “out of order” as she was asking to enter an objection into the record. It was an odd sight: A council member raising his voice and telling the city’s chief municipal court judge she was “out of order.”
Sellers remained calm and made her objections formally during the hearing. She mentioned how unfair it was that she couldn’t call witnesses, face her accusers or enter evidence to defend herself.
“Every day people come into my courtroom with a wide variety of charges ... and guess what they’re all provided? ... Due process,” she said. “Why am I not afforded that same opportunity?”
Mayor William “Bill” Edwards, who was present, said Tuesday that he recused himself from the hearing because the attorney Sellers is using is also his attorney. Edwards had suggested Sellers for the position of municipal judge at the beginning.
After her firing, Sellers said, “I am disappointed but not surprised.”
She said she plans to appeal her termination in Fulton County Superior Court, charging it was an improper process that led to her firing.
She previously tried to bar the City Council from holding the hearing, by unsuccessfully asking a Fulton County Superior Court judge on Thursday to block the hearing, where Sellers felt her firing was inevitable.
“They already made up their minds,” she said Tuesday. “It was a formality.”
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