Spotlight: Chief Judge Tiffany Carter Sellers
In 2016, the voters of the unincorporated southern portion of Fulton County voted to form the City of South Fulton. With its nearly 100,000 residents, elected officials for the new city have been busy establishing the governmental infrastructure to meet the needs of its citizens. One example of such happenings is the formation of the Municipal Court for the City of South Fulton.
In May 2017, Mayor Bill Edwards appointed The Honorable Tiffany Carter Sellers as Chief Judge of the City of South Fulton and tasked her with the responsibility of establishing the municipal court. Judge Sellers, a graduate of South Carolina State University and the University of Georgia School of Law, has practiced law for nearly a decade in the metro-Atlanta area. She has a unique perspective from both sides of the bench. NewPower PAC’s Communications Director Jenn McNeely recently spoke with Judge Sellers about her background, her path to the judgeship, establishing the municipal court, and her advice to other women in Georgia.
This interview has been lightly edited for length and clarity.
McNeely: NewPower wants to thank you for being willing to talk to us about your experience going through the judicial appointment process and also your experience establishing the City’s Municipal Court. Give our readers an idea of your background. I know you’re from New Jersey. How did you end up here in Georgia?
Judge Sellers: After high school, I attended South Carolina State University on a full academic scholarship, and I fell in love. And my now husband, then boyfriend, told me, “I’m not going anywhere where it snows.” And so we agreed that we would focus in on Georgia and on the Atlanta area. I applied to the University of Georgia School of Law and got in. Then after graduation, we stayed in Georgia and settled in the Atlanta area.
McNeely: Tell us about your practice prior to starting with the court.
Judge Sellers: My first job was with the oldest minority-owned firm in the State of Georgia, Thomas Kennedy Sampson & Tompkins, LLP. I worked with Mr. Sampson and Jeff Tompkins primarily, and I learned a lot. They were awesome mentors; awesome trial attorneys. It was absolutely the best thing that could’ve happened to my career.
In that capacity, I represented several quasi-governmental entities: Grady [Memorial Hospital], MARTA, and the Housing Authority of the City of Atlanta. So that’s how I got my foot in the door, doing trial work because we tried cases for MARTA, we tried cases for Grady. So that’s how I learned, working for them.
McNeely: What did you do next?
Judge Sellers: I left that job and went to work for a firm called Insley & Race LLC. We did primarily medical malpractice and premises liability. So what I was doing at Thomas Kennedy, I continued to do at Insley & Race. The only difference is that now Insley & Race represented private companies. That firm represented Tenant Health System here in Atlanta as well as several nursing homes and lots of apartment complexes.
After I had my second child, I thought, “Maybe I don’t really wanna do premises work and med-mal work anymore. Maybe I wanna do something a little easier.” So I went to work for a firm called Casey Gilson and did railroad work at that point. I represented CSX.
McNeely: How did that work out?
Judge Sellers: Then that’s kind of when my life took a turn. I got laid off from that job. CSX had terminated their contract, and I was the last one hired, the first one laid off. That’s when I went into my own practice. That experience is really what pushed me to become who I am now. Now I own my own practice where my primary client is Grady. I still represent Grady, and I actually do all of the premises liability work for Grady in my private practice.
McNeely: So not only are you building a court, you’re also an entrepreneur who decided that you wanted to take your career into your hands, and you did it.
Judge Sellers: Well, you know, you make it sound so great, Jenn. At the time that I was being laid off and just transitioning, it didn’t seem great. But, you know, God knew better than me, and so he positioned me in places where owning my own practice really gave me the exposure that I needed to kind of develop my career, advance my career even further.
McNeely: That’s a really important point for a lot of women who want to go out on their own, but are afraid to do it. You’ve actually done it and it’s so inspiring just to know that you’ve been successful in a profession that’s dominated by men.
Going back for a second, I know that you received a B.A. in Political Science, with the highest GPA in your major. It seems that getting involved in politics was an open idea for you for a while. What attracted you to political science back then?
Judge Sellers: Well, my 6th-grade teacher, Miss Schaefer, really developed my love of government. And so it’s not so much the politics that I enjoy, but it’s understanding government and how government works, and how government can work to the advantage of people. I went to undergraduate school still intrigued by government. Not so much politics, but just how varying levels of government can impact people’s lives.
McNeely: And so now talk about where you are now with the court. How did this appointment come about? Was it something you were looking for?
Judge Sellers: Well, it’s actually a very interesting story. I live in the new City of South Fulton. I believe the city, the residents voted to have a city. Honestly, I really wasn’t paying attention very much to that process because my practice was very busy at that point. One of my friends is the Senior Associate General Counsel at Grady, and she said, “Hey! You know they’re looking for a judge in your city. You should apply.” And I thought, “Nah! No, I’m not going to do that.”
I’m not very politically savvy, and I really thought that the mayor had his appointment already, and this was just to check off the box. You know, he wasn’t really going to select someone that he didn’t know from a pool of applicants. I didn’t know the mayor personally. I had never spoken to him on the phone or anything like that. So in my brain, I’m thinking, “There’s no way that he’s just going to pick some random person based on their resume.”
My friend kept telling me to apply, and I didn’t think much of it. Meanwhile, I went on a family vacation and when I came back from vacation that Monday, and my friend asked again if I had applied. I was convinced the mayor already had who he wanted for the position. My friend kept telling me to apply.
So, literally, the deadline was a Tuesday afternoon at 5:00. Tuesday afternoon at about 2:30 or 3:00, I brought my resume up there. And I said to myself, “Okay, I’m just going to say that I applied. Here’s my resume and my cover letter.” I hand delivered it. A few weeks later I got a phone call saying I had been selected for an interview with the panel. Again, I thought, “This is not more than a formality. I’m going to show up and I am going to do my best, and let’s see what happens.”
I interviewed with two current sitting Superior Court Judges, a former Superior Court Judge, and a prominent lawyer in our community. I thought the interview went well, but again, I’m thinking, this was just a formality. A few days later, I got a phone call from the mayor’s assistant that I made the short list and the mayor wanted to meet with me. That was when I realized that this was not a formality anymore.
McNeely: How were your feeling at that point? Did you feel at that point that you would be selected?
Judge Sellers: I didn’t put a lot of stock in it because I knew my background and I knew what I brought to the table in terms of being a trial lawyer. But as a municipal court judge? I’m young. I’m only 36 years old. Our city has 100,000 residents and so it’s a large city. We have to build the court from the ground. Never in my wildest dreams did I think they would pick someone like me. So I went to the interview, and the next day the mayor called me and said, “I just want to inform you that you’re going to be my appointment.”
McNeely: That’s amazing. What was going through your mind?
Judge Sellers: I couldn’t even talk. I was just flabbergasted. I had no words. I mean, I was very thankful and appreciative.
McNeely: That was such an inspiring story. One of the things that I’ve learned since volunteering with NewPower PAC is that before most women decide to run for office or seek an appointed position, it usually takes the suggestion or encouragement of another woman. It looks like you’re a prime example of just that.
So now that you have been vetted and have gone through the formalities of the appointment process, tell us about your journey establishing the court.
Judge Sellers: Well, it’s been interesting and it’s been a learning experience. And I have been blessed to have really developed great friendships and relationships through this process–people who really want to see the success, not only my success, but the success of the city–who have been willing to help me and teach me and show me the ropes. The first thing that I did was, I said, ” I must hire a staff because I can’t do this all by myself.”
So we went through the process of hiring the staff, and I really took some time to develop what I believe my vision is for the court–how I want it structured, how I want it organized, different rules and things that I want to implement. Really the overall feeling that I want to give to the court. Once I did that and I developed my organizational chart, at that point, it was about the implementation phase. The City has an excellent HR department. The City Manager at the time, Miss Jones, was incredibly helpful in terms of how to set this up and how to develop things.
So we just kind of took it one day at a time. My husband will tell you that I work all the time now. I get up in the morning, usually about 4:30 and from about 4:30 to 6:30, I actually do my practice, pretty early in the morning, get my kids off to school, and then I go to the city and I spend 8, sometimes 9, hours there just making sure that we have everything. I’m meeting with IT about computers to meeting with varying software developers to develop the software for the court. Everything. You know, we do that constantly, day in and day out, and because I am the representative of the Municipal Court, that involves meetings and all of those things. I come home in the evening, spend some hours with my family, and then I jump right back on and work sometimes in the evening on my practice work. So I’ve done, really for the last 40 days, until my staff actually started at the court. So that has helped me tremendously.
McNeely: Are you still practicing at your own firm as well?
Judge Sellers: Absolutely. According to the Charter, the Chief Judge of the Municipal Court is a part-time position, and so I still maintain my practice, too. So I’m doing both and it’s tiring but now is the time to work, you know? And that’s what I believe. I believe that if I want a good result at the end, I have to be prepared. Things have to be organized and in place.
McNeely: How do you think your perspective and experience as a practicing attorney has helped you in putting together the Municipal Court for the City of South Fulton?
Judge Sellers: Well, I understand practitioners’ needs. And I understand what I want or what I expect when I go to court. So I expect a judge to be prepared. I expect the staff to be prepared. I expect people to value my time. I expect people to respect my arguments, even if they don’t agree with them. And so that’s really the basis for which I built the court.
At the City of South Fulton’s Municipal Court, unlike several other municipal courts, we have a variety of calendars. I’ve broken things down so that we just don’t have, what I would call, “haul-everybody-in” days.
McNeely: As an attorney myself, that kind of perspective and innovation is refreshing.
Judge Sellers: We have arraignment calendars. Obviously, those calendars are pretty long because it’s arraignment, and so it just is the nature of the beast. We have motions calendars, probation revocation calendars. We have failure to appear calendars, which I know they do in the City of Atlanta, but a lot of the other municipal courts don’t do that, and I think it’s a disservice. I think that, you know, now under the new law, there’s a certain amount of time before I can suspend somebody’s license as a result of their failure to appear in a traffic court situation. So why not use that time to our advantage? So we have, every Wednesday evening, we’ll have failure to appear calendars. You don’t need to let us know you’re coming ahead of time. You just show up and say, “Hey, I’m here, and I want to resolve my matter.” And we’re prepared to take you back.
We’ll also have bench trial days. We have environmental court days. I think that that’s important to a practitioner and I think it’s also important to citizens. You don’t want to have to sit there for five hours, for a matter that would’ve taken five minutes. Right? Since I have the pleasure of setting it up, that’s not what we’re going to do.
McNeely: How does that feel, just knowing that you’ve put your touches on a lot of these different things that will impact the citizens of the City of South Fulton?
Judge Sellers: Honestly, it’s a blessing, Jenn. As a practitioner, you always have these ideas of how you could do things better. When I sat in someone’s courtroom waiting an hour for something that would’ve taken 15 minutes, I thought “This can be done so much more efficiently!” And now I’m the person to figure out how to make it happen more efficiently. So it’s incredible. I am honored to have this opportunity. It’s just my desire to serve the citizens of South Fulton the best way that I can.
McNeely: So what’s next for your Judge Sellers? Chief Judge of the Georgia Supreme Court? Where do you see yourself in the future?
Judge Sellers: I don’t know if I ever really thought I’d be a judge. I think, as a practitioner, I just wanted to be a great trial lawyer, so I don’t know if I ever thought I would be a judge. Now that I am a judge, I don’t know! I really don’t know. I have to see how it develops. I’m certainly not opposed to any sort of additional judgeships, you know, full-time kind of judgeships down the road, but I don’t know. You’ll have to stay tuned for that one because I’m 45 days into my current judgeship.
McNeely: Before we end, I would love your thoughts about women getting involved in the political process. There are a lot of women like you who are doing amazing things on your own and have the talents and abilities to do great things in politics, but never consider getting involved. What do you say to those women who didn’t think that they could ever run for office or get an appointment?
Judge Sellers: There’s this Bible verse that I built my life on. Ephesians 3:20, which says, “Now unto Him that is able to do exceedingly abundantly above all we can ask or imagine.” That’s kind of the core of my life, because my opinion and my perception is that God built us for this. I believe that I’m built for this time. I don’t know why. I don’t know how. But all of the skills from my background — I’m pulling on all of those resources for this time right now.
And to those women who are thinking about running, understand that all of the tools are in your toolbox. You may not even remember. It may be a job 20 years ago that you had, that you had to supervise someone or you learned something, or you did something. All of those tools, they were for a purpose, and a purpose bigger than what you can imagine.
So, step out there and do it and great things will happen.
McNeely: Thank you for stepping out there and doing it. Thank you for listening to your friend and doing such amazing things for the City of South Fulton, and for women in Georgia. You’re putting together a court, and we at New Power PAC are looking forward to seeing all of the amazing things that you’re going to do in the future.
Judge Sellers: I thank you so much. I appreciate it.
Editor’s note: The City of South Fulton has voted to change its name to Renaissance, Georgia.