Judge Williams on common sense, representation and the power of family

Judge Shermela J. Williams, incoming Family Division Chief Judge for the Fulton County Superior Court, sat down for an interview recently to chat about her new leadership role, the driving forces that led her to a career in law, and her unwavering thoughts on having common sense.

Q:  What have you enjoyed most while being in the Family Division?Judge Williams

A:  “Interacting with people, and helping and healing families with creative solutions. I approach being a Judge on the Family Bench perhaps differently than some other folks do. I think as a Judge, certainly it’s your responsibility is to listen to the facts, make a decision based on the facts and the law. I think that is more black and white when you are in the Criminal and Civil division. However, in the Family Division it’s not just about the law and the facts, because folks are coming to you in a space and a place of crisis. And sometimes they need you to, yes, listen to the facts, incorporate the law, but the solutions or the verdict that you render, depending on the case, sometimes have to include putting on my social worker, life coach and therapist hats.”

Q:  This part about coming up with creative solutions and helping families, what do you think in your background has helped you to be able to really give a lot of thought into that and come up with solutions?

A:  “It’s the totality of my background – personal, professional, educational, faith and community. I try to bring a very common-sense approach to the bench…when I was a prosecutor, and when I was a trial lawyer, on the criminal and civil side, whenever I did a jury trial, I would always say to the jury, ‘don’t leave your common sense at the door, because the law doesn’t require us to do that.’ I also believe that being present and active in my community, my previous experience of trying cases, and core values allow me to think outside of the traditional solutions box, think about what THIS family needs, and connect with people in a very genuine and personable manner. ”

More on that common sense as we progressed in the conversation. 

Judge Williams went on to explain that there are at times she has to weigh requests from lawyers or litigants that don’t make logical sense; or a request she can foresee will cause further problems that will land parties back in her courtroom on a contempt or unnecessary modification. And so, she tries to write her “orders in a way that they are clear, practical and such that the average person…can read and understand them.” Judge Williams tries to ensure that her Orders also anticipate common problems that may arise between the parties. While the Judge explains she cannot anticipate everything, there is an element to the common sense she employs that, by using the information she heard in the case, can inform her of foreseeable issues that can become a problem down the line.  

Her Time As A Prosecutor

Judge Williams was a prosecutor for approximately ten years and during that time she worked mainly in units that handled homicide and crimes against women and children. Working on these types of cases gave her the opportunity to talk to a lot of children and adults about traumatic experiences in their lives, which gives her a unique perspective. With a grandfather who was a steel worker, a grandmother who was a nanny and housekeeper, and a mother who was an Accountant, she grew up being exposed to different socioeconomic levels and cultures, which helped her to see that “resources and opportunities are not always the same or always allocated the same either.”

Q:  Do you think the time you spent working on domestic abuse is where you really started to hone in on being able to anticipate some of the ways in which people move through life?

A:  “I think that’s where that skill was sharpened, but the people-paying attention skill, as I call it, paying attention to people, or people watching, that started when I was a little girl and growing up in a large family. My mother is one of 9 children.  I spent a lot of time with my grandmother growing up. Both of my parents were in my life.  My father was murdered when I was seven.  My mother was a single parent and had to work. Of course, she had a full-time job, she had my brother and me to take care of, and she worked up in Roswell. We lived on the South Side…so she couldn’t always get us from school. We went to summer camp for half the summer and the other half I spent with my grandmother. I guess that’s where I get my ‘old soul’. My grandmother was a nanny and a housekeeper.  At times, I would go to work with her and have tea parties with the homeowners. I learned at an early age how to engage, connect with, and talk to people who were not like me.” 

That paying attention to, listening to people, and observing…were valuable skills as a prosecutor focused on violent crimes, domestic violence, sex crimes, and murder cases because they helped her to build trust with the victims who need to be able to trust and believe that “you want to and are going to help them.”

Law School Graduation

Judge Williams wrote the following in her law school admissions essay, “I want to the eyes of the blind, the voice for the silent, and the strength for the weak.  When my father was murdered, I felt like I was powerless, like there was nobody speaking for me, there was nobody who was there to advocate and fight for me, a little girl who had lost her father.”

She recalled a murder case she and her investigator were working on in the “Bluff” aka Vine City neighborhood, trying to find witnesses. Even though the murder occurred out in the open, in broad daylight, no one would talk to the police. So when she went out to the scene, she knew it was better to dress casually because she knew that they “would be walking, knocking on doors, talking to people, potentially ducking behind bushes to talk to people, and so on” It was a cold day she recalls, and she wore jeans, Uggs, a sweatshirt and a coat…as they were walking through the neighborhood trying to find people who would talk to them about what happened, a little kid walked up to her and handed her a note, which read “Are you from DFCS or are you from the pigs?” As she asked him where the note came from, he “kind of looked at me but kind of looked to the side with his eyes to show where the note came from.” She and her Investigator walked over to the house and explained that she wasn’t from DFCS, that she was a prosecutor from the DA’s office assigned to the murder case. The person told her “I’ve never seen a prosecutor come out here. You must really care.”

But in her work during that time, she wanted people to be comfortable in talking to her and would try to interview witnesses in their homes, coffee shops in the neighborhood, the library, etc. She explained that when people walk into the courthouse, they are oftentimes afraid that someone is going to see them and tell others that they were “snitching.” And so, she would try to talk to people on their terms, understanding that “coming forward” was difficult because they still had to live in the neighborhood, so she always tried to preface it with “tell me how I can help you help me.”  Regardless of the case, she needed them to trust her to tell her what was happening so that she could help. 

But now the Judge meets people in her courtroom, so I was curious how that desire to create environments where people feel like they are listened to and are met on their own terms, translates now. Judge Williams explained that she tries to be very intentional about listening to people, by repeating back what they said, looking at them, and being personable. She also heavily prepares beforehand by reading the pleadings to make sure that she has a good understanding of the issues, and she has all her questions ready to ask the lawyers or parties.  

“I think that when people see that you are prepared and you know the facts of the case and what’s going on, it gives them a little bit more comfort.”

And the caseloads in the Family Division are high, as all courts work through the backlog, the four Judges in this division are closing 75-100 cases, each, per month. With more cases coming in than closing, they are a very busy division within Superior Court.  

On Why Representation Matters

Growing up, Judge Williams said she knew she wanted to be a lawyer and Judge since age seven. “Whenever I go places and speak, I always say, ‘I’m thankful to the people of Fulton County for making my childhood dream come true’. And so, it’s incumbent upon me to give back as much as I can.'"

The Judge also knows that representation on the bench matters. As one of the younger Judges on the bench, a woman and African American, oftentimes now and when she was an attorney, she has been mistaken for anything but. The Judge told me a story of when she was a newly minted prosecutor in Philadelphia, a boy on the bus she was riding to work asked her if she was rich…to which she replied, no. He then asked her if she was a stripper. While she was dressed in conservative business attire, to that little boy, in that particular neighborhood, for her to look like she had money, “in his mind, strippers were the ones who had money, drug dealers were the ones who had money.” She explained to this impressionable child that she was a lawyer to which he exclaimed that he’d never seen a black lawyer.   

So she knows how important it is that 8 members of the Superior Court bench are African American and also why she goes into communities around Fulton County to talk to kids, “because for some of them, they don’t recognize that this too is something you [they] can do, this too is something that you [they] can attain and achieve, but they don’t recognize it because that’s not what they see on a daily, that’s not what they see on a regular, or even ever.”

She looks up to an award given to her from WAVE (We All Value Excellence), an organization that specifically works with children in lower-income households. The Judge is part of a program where they bring these children in on a Saturday with various speakers, in an effort to expose them to the justice system in various ways, in a non-threatening environment. The children hear from Judges, police officers, defense attorneys and the DA’s office, and are even shown the holding cells. She talks to them about a variety of issues such as decision making, goal-setting, laws directly impacting youth, and so on.

On How Family Influenced Her

She feels it’s also important that she tells the children her “own story of growing up in Southwest Atlanta and the importance of listening to your parents and making good choices.” She tells them how when she was 16 or 17 years old - a straight A student who had never been in trouble - trying to be slick to go to a teen club with her older cousin.  They lied and told her mom that they were going to the mall.  When her mom notices that it’s her cousin picking her up with his friends in the car, her mom told her she wasn’t going anywhere. Which at the time Judge Williams got mad about and felt her mom was trying to ruin her fun and was overparenting her. Luckily her cousin decided to hang out with her at the house and let his friends go on without him…shortly after they left, while at a gas station, one of the guys in the car got into it with the attendant and ended up shooting and killing the guy with a gun his friends didn’t know he had on him. As they sped away from the scene…a series of bad decisions led to everyone that was in the car that night arrested, charged with murder and ALL are serving a life sentence to this day. Judge Williams’s mother impressed upon her “the importance of not succumbing to peer pressure, the importance of making good decisions, and the importance of thinking through what it is that you’re doing before you do it, being proactive versus reactive.”

Q: What was it about your family’s influences that made you want to go into public service? You knew you wanted to be an attorney, but this idea of serving the public, where did that come from?

A: “For me, tragedy was the impetus.  My father was murdered when I was seven and the person who killed him never served a day in jail, and I just always thought that was wrong. My mother always taught me right from wrong, my grandparents, etc., and if you do wrong, you’ll get punished, but that it should be tempered with compassion, grace, and mercy”

Judge Williams went on to say that besides her father’s death, that Matlock, the tv show, also played a large role. Girl Scouts

“I grew up in a family where service is what we do. I was a Girl Scout, even got my Silver and Gold Awards.  My mother made sure that we served in church, the community, etc.  My grandfather…died in December 2020, I was elected in June of 2020. He was sick the entirety of 2020, but it was critically important to him that we worked on my campaign, he and my grandmother, because both of them talked about how they remember when, as they would say, ‘colored folks were not even allowed to work in these types of fields’. It was super duper important to him that he be able to help in that process of getting me elected. So even in his nursing home, he was telling people ‘Did you get your absentee ballot…my grandbaby is on the ballot.’”

Judge Williams’s grandfather passed two weeks before she was officially sworn in, but he did get to see her elected.  

This sense of service was ingrained in her in other ways as well. She recalled that during Christmas her mom would have them pick a toy after they opened gifts to give away to the shelter or battered women’s shelter, and if they tried to “get slick and pick one that was a smaller or not-so-good toy”, she would take that one plus one of the better ones. 

Her New Leadership Role

Q: Now that you have moved into this leadership role in the Family Division, looking at the fuller picture, what do you hope to accomplish during these next couple of years? 

A: “I think we do a really good job here in Fulton County of making the courts accessible to every citizen, period, no matter their socioeconomic status. So certainly, I want to expand that, and I want to build upon that and make that even easier…to ensure that information is being disseminated in an efficient manner between the court and the public, between the court and the bar, and to make sure that those relationships are being fostered.”

Judge Williams went on to say that she’s met with leaders in the Family Divisions of the State and Atlanta Bar Associations to “talk about how we as a bench can make sure that we are staying in touch…with the demands of the public. Because sometimes sitting on the bench, it is easy for you to lose sight of what’s going on on the ground because people don’t tell you everything, people disseminate information to you based on what they believe is an as needed basis.”

“Making sure that the relationship between the Family Division and the community, the Family Division and the bar, is a good, positive relationship, and that there is open communication because that is very important to me. I think so many times the issues that we have are because of a lack of communication or miscommunication, or under-communication.”

Last year, there was a noted increase in Temporary Protective Orders (TPO’s) and Judge Williams also hopes to make that process more streamlined, easier, and more efficient.  

On the role of the bench as a whole and the importance of communicating problem, the Judge said that “it’s a partnership with all of our community partners…not just agencies, not just bar associations, not just lawyers, but also citizens. Because certainly we…endeavor to be and give the best service that we can, but we’re also human…if there is an issue, let us know.  Sometimes it’s not an issue we can fix, sometimes it’s an issue we CAN fix, and sometimes it’s an issue we’re not even aware of. But certainly, if the communication is not even made, then we certainly don’t know.”

My last question I asked Judge Williams was what she would want the public to know or understand about the role within the community and justice system that the Family Division plays. She discussed the division’s main goal is to provide quality services to families and “if there is anything we can do to improve, let us know. Use the feedback form on the website, call the Family Division and let us know…whatever it may be. Above all, please be patient with us and the process. Delay is not denial, and you will get your day in court!”