This year the DeKalb Bar Association honors Judge Clarence F. Seeliger with our Pioneer Award for his years of service and leadership to the DeKalb County Bench, Bar, and public.
Judge Seeliger was born and raised in Seattle, Washington. He attended the University of Washington, graduating with a degree in Political Science in 1963. He entered the United States Air Force in 1963, serving in Biloxi, Mississippi; Savannah, Georgia; Vietnam; Thailand; and Altus, Oklahoma. He was released from service in August, 1967, with the rank of captain.
Judge Seeliger went on to attend Emory University Law School, entering in the fall of 1967 and graduating in March 1970. While at Emory Law, he interned at the Southern Regional Council, a biracial commission of lawyers, ministers and newspaper editors from 13 Southern states who opposed segregation and urged more whites to champion equal rights. He was admitted to the Bar in 1970. He later opened a solo practice in Decatur.
Reporter for the Daily Report R. Robin McDonald captured the brewing scene in DeKalb and then-lawyer Seeliger’s experiences, which led to his decision to run for judge:
Twenty years after DeKalb County State Court Judge J. Oscar Mitchell sent Martin Luther King Jr. to state prison for violating probation for a $25 traffic ticket, a young Emory law school graduate from Seattle decided to challenge the entrenched older judge. The intervening years since Mitchell had sent King to Reidsville State Prison and was forced a day later, under pressure from John F. Kennedy’s presidential campaign, to rescind the punishment, had done little to change Mitchell’s attitudes toward African-Americans, recalls DeKalb County Superior Court Judge Clarence F. Seeliger, who challenged the 30-year incumbent and defeated him.
What triggered Seeliger’s decision to run for the post was Mitchell’s treatment of one of Seeliger’s clients, a 21-year old woman who was the first person charged with welfare fraud in Georgia.
R. Robin McDonald, staff reporter, Fulton County Daily Report, May 18, 2009
In the courtroom that day, Seeliger, who had been practicing law only three years, endured a rant of racial epithets from Judge Mitchell directed at his young client. This had a tremendous impact upon him and eventually compelled him to challenge Mitchell for the seat. Four years later, without the backing of the county’s Democrats, or even the DeKalb Bar Association, in 1980, he did just that and won.
Upon becoming the first person to defeat a sitting judge in this county, Judge Seeliger took immediate action to equalize the courtroom and halls of justice. He hired Nes Thomas as his bailiff, who became the first African-American to work for the DeKalb County State Courts. He then banished the Confederate battle flag from his courtroom, a holdover from Mitchell, which led to a deluge of calls and even a death threat against the newly minted judge.
Four years later Judge Seeliger ran for an open spot on the Superior Court bench and won.
Judge Seeliger continues to blaze a trail for equal justice and has been a strong voice in the fight against domestic violence. As a judge, he has served on or spearhead several important committees and commissions. A few of his accomplishments:
- Founding board member of the DeKalb Volunteer Lawyers’ Foundation, 1984
- Chair for the DeKalb County Task Force for Domestic Violence (1993-1996)
- Chair of the Georgia Commission on Family Violence (appointed by Governor Zell Miller, 1996-2002)
- Vice-Chair for Gender/Racial/Ethnic Fairness in 2000 for the Judicial Council of Georgia
- Board member of the Seattle-based Faith Trust Institute – an international multi-faith organization dedicated to ending sexual and domestic violence
Please join me on March 7 to honor Judge Clarence F. Seeliger for all his contributions and his commitment to justice for all.
Judge Seeliger photo courtesy of web.co.dekalb.ga.us.