Kellie Hill is a candidate for judge of Cobb County Superior Court. The race is nonpartisan, so the winner of the June 9 election will replace retiring Judge Lark Ingram when she leaves office at the end of the year.
Hill is currently a judge in Cobb County’s Magistrate Court.
The Courier had a recent phone conversation with Judge Hill, and asked her to begin by telling a little about her background.
“I was born and raised in New Jersey, and at about the age of 13, I had an opportunity to meet a judge,” Hill said. “Her name was Shirley Tolentino.”
“Judge Tolentino was the first African American Superior Court judge that we had in my hometown, which was Jersey City, New Jersey,” Hill said. “I remember when I met Judge Tolentino for the first time, I had an idea of what I thought I wanted to do later in life as a profession, and that was be a judge.”
Hill said that she wrote an essay about Tolentino as part of the application process to the University of Pennsylvania as an undergraduate.
“When I graduated, I realized, ‘Oh, well, I guess that means I’ve got to go to law school because if I’m going to be a judge, I first have to be a lawyer.’,” Hill said. “So, it’s funny because I never really gave much thought to the fact that it was sort of a prerequisite to practice law first.”
“I just knew I wanted to be a judge.”
“After a while, I got into college. I majored in international relations. My concentration was in international business,” she said. “I really thought that I was going to be an international corporate attorney.”
Hill said that after graduation she applied to law school at both Rutgers and Georgetown, and was accepted at both.
She initially decided to go to Georgetown, but in looking over the financial aspects of the decision, she decided Rutgers was a more affordable option.
“I took many tax seminars and a lot of business-related classes, never ever thinking that I would be a litigator in the courtroom,” Hill said. “I always thought I would be a business attorney.”
“While in law school, I participated in a clinic called the prisoners rights clinics,” she said. “I was assigned an inmate who was actually in prison for a contract murder. He was a Muslim, and my only role was to help him try and get his special diet while he was in custody.”
“But in order to do that, I had to actually go to … I believe it was Trenton State Prison if I’m not mistaken.” she said.
“I remember sitting and having a conversation with this man who was serving time for a contract murder,” said Hill. “I spent hours talking to him.”
“When I left, the thought that I had to myself was, ‘Wow, what a waste! This man is brilliant!'”
“He has so much to offer society, but he’s going to spend the rest of his life in prison,” she said.
She said because of that experience she decided to participate in a trial clinic while in school, and argued a case.
Hill took a summer internship at a large New Jersey law firm. She was rotated between tax litigation and the corporate department.
At one point she said, she was asked to write a memo, and was complimented on it by the attorney, who said that the memo was so high quality that within a few years she should be able to take depositions.
“I remember kind of chuckling and saying ‘A few years! There’s no way I can do this work for a few years before I can actually get my teeth into the real meat of the case!’,” she said.
Move to Georgia and Cobb County
Hill said she realized at that point that if she were going to stay in New Jersey or New York, and pay off her student loans, she would have to stay at the law firm she had interned with, because it was one of the higher paying firms in New Jersey.
She began the search for a place she could have a decent lifestyle without doing the sort of work she had been doing with the large New Jersey firm.
“This was in 1989. So it was pre-Olympics. Atlanta was still sort of a big small town,” she said.
“For the first year or so it was really tough for me,” Hill said,
“because I was not yet barred to practice law in the state of Georgia. No one wanted to hire me.”
“They either said I was overqualified or they wanted to hire me as a lawyer and because I was not barred, they didn’t extend the offer.”
Hill said she worked temporary receptionist jobs, and was hired full-time by a market research firm.
One of her duties was to recruit people for focus groups, and a prospect she talked to was a recruiter for law firms, who put Hill in touch with a personal injury law firm in East Atlanta.
She was hired as a receptionist.
“After about two weeks,” Hill said, “they decided that they weren’t going to keep me on the phone … that they were actually going to put me to work and offer me a position as a legal assistant. So I worked as a legal assistant on personal injury cases, getting them prepared and ready for negotiation.”
“And that’s how I started my legal career here in Georgia,” said Hill.
While working with the firm as a legal assistant, she passed the bar, and was hired as an associate attorney.
At first she worked on settlements for personal injury cases, and another attorney would take over if the case went to trial, but soon she began trying the cases in court also.
Career as a prosecuting attorney
She then took a job in the Cobb County Solicitor’s office under Ralph Bowden. Bowden asked for a three-year commitment, and Hill’s plan was to work in the solicitor’s office for the three-year period, and then go into private practice.
“The second year of working for Ralph, Lewis Slaton, who was the District Attorney of Fulton County at the time, called and offered me a position,” Hill said.
“I told them I appreciated it, but I couldn’t accept because I had not fulfilled my commitment to Ralph,” she said.
“Another year working for Ralph prosecuting misdemeanor cases and I was assigned to a courtroom,” she said. “And I loved being on trial. But in my heart I had not yet accepted the fact that I was going to be a trial attorney.”
After three years had passed, Hill was again offered a job in the Fulton County DA’s office, and she accepted, with a goal of getting experience in felony cases.
She was hired in September of 1995, and she worked in Slaton’s office as a floater, moving from case to case as needed. Occasionally she would be called in at the last minute before a trial began, and she described it as her “trial by fire.”
Hill said she was assigned by Slaton to work in the courtroom of the well-known Judge William Daniel.
“Judge Daniel had been on the Fulton superior bench for years,” she said.
“I call him a gentleman and a scholar. He was one of the nicest men you ever wanted to meet,” she said. “He had written the criminal trial practice book that all trial attorneys use that I was aware of. If you were going to trial, you had William Daniels book on your table.”
“So I had the benefit of learning from judge Daniel,” Hill said. “I think back now as to how he really in truly mentored and helped train me from the bench to be a better lawyer, to focus on the details and make sure that when I practice law that I did so efficiently but properly.”
She said that one Saturday she was working on an armed robbery case, after Paul Howard had taken over as District Attorney. Howard asked what she was working on, and she told him about the armed robbery case.
Howard decided that Hill did not have sufficient courtroom experience to try the case alone, and assigned a senior attorney to assist her on the case.
Hill said it was lucky he did, because although she had prepared well for the case, “One thing that I wasn’t prepared for was the fact that my witness recanted on the stand.”
She said there were three codefendants who were accused of robbing people in West End of their sneakers.
When her witness was put on the stand, she said, “He recanted and told me that we had the wrong person on trial. And although he had previously identified that person, he made a mistake. So, it was nice to have somebody who was seasoned at the table with me.”
“(We) found out that the reason the witness recanted is because he had been threatened the night before, and his family had been threatened,” she said.
Hill said that one of the defendants was the nephew of Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin, who had been known in the 1960s as activist H. Rap Brown.
Al-Amin was arrested for witness intimidation.
“It was the first time I was ever threatened as a prosecutor,” Hill said. “The message was relayed back that one of the defendants had threatened me and said that I will be dead.”
“Obviously, I’m still alive. So it didn’t happen. But it’s the first time I’ve ever really had a case where I’d been threatened and we had to arrest people for intimidating witnesses,” she said. “It was all the product of just preparing what I thought was a simple armed robbery.”
The first really high profile case she worked on had a connection to the armed robbery case.
Jamil Abdullah Al-Amin had been arrested and charged with murder in the shooting of Fulton County Sheriff’s deputies Sheriff’s deputies Ricky Kinchen and Aldranon English, which left Kinchen dead.
Al-Amin, who was an imam in West End, was originally scheduled to go on trial September 12, 2001. But that was the day after the terror attack on the Twin Towers, and it was determined that Al-Amin would not be able to receive a fair trial, as a religious official who wore traditional Muslim clothing.
“So the case was postponed until the following year,” Hill said. “We tried it and he was convicted. The jury gave him life without parole and the judge sentenced him,” she said.
“That was the first really high profile case I had.”
Her next well-known case was the highly publicized case of the murder of Lita McClinton, the daughter of Georgia state Representative JoAnn McClinton and former U.S. Department of Transportation official Emory McClinton.
Lita McClinton was murdered at her front door by a man who it was later determined was hired by her former husband, James Sullivan.
Hill said that the case had been considered a cold case. The U.S. Attorney’s Office had determined there wasn’t enough evidence to try the case.
After nearly twenty years, a breakthrough was made in the case, and it was tried as a state murder case by the Fulton County DA’s office. James Sullivan was tried and convicted, and sentenced to life without parole.
“I remember seeing the look of relief on Lita’s parents’ faces. I think for the first time in over 20 years, they felt like justice had been served for the death of their daughter,” Hill said.
“I ended up being a prosecutor for 22 years,” she said. “I spent 17 in Fulton County, and I did the last two in Dekalb County.”
“And then of course, the first three years on the front end in the solicitor’s office,” she said.
“So for 22 years I’ve been a prosecutor and in those years I rose to be a supervisor. I supervised other lawyers at trial,” she said. “I was the director of the Public Integrity unit for about 10 years where I was solely responsible for independently investigating any officer-involved shooting case that happened in Fulton County.”
“If a police officer discharged his or her weapon, it came to my desk and I had to do an independent review,” she said. “I either cleared it, or I found that it may have been a violation of some administrative policy and I would refer it back to the agency to be handled internally, maybe with some recommendations on how they could tighten up their policies.”
“Or I presented it to a grand jury for criminal indictment,” she said.
She said one such case was the shooting of 93-year-old Kathryn Johnson in her home by Atlanta police officers who had lied to a Magistrate Court judge when they got the warrant.
She said she felt the weight of the world on her shoulders with that case, since acquittals of officers in a fatal shooting in New York had resulted in riots.
“My job was not to decide what the outcome was. My job was to present it to a jury and let the jury decide, which they did,” she said.
Hill was assigned to work on the Brian Nichols case, although she asked to be removed from the case because she knew the judge and other officials Nichols was later convicted of murdering.
Nichols had gone on a killing rampage while escaping from the Fulton County courthouse in March of 2005.
“I specifically had asked not to be on that case, because I was the prosecutor assigned to judge Roland Barnes when he first was sworn in as a Superior Court judge,” she said. “I knew Julie (Ann Brandau), the court reporter. I knew Hoyt Teasley, the sheriff’s deputy that was shot and killed. And I was in my office the morning of the shooting.”
“It was it was a very intense trial,” Hill said. “We presented that case and obviously, the jury convicted Nichols of all 52 counts, but they did not give him the death penalty.”
Nichols is serving multiple life sentences.
Hill said that during her entire careers in Fulton and Dekalb counties, she continued to live in Cobb County.
Focus on police use of force
Hill said that because of her experience as director of Fulton’s, and later Dekalb’s, Public Integrity Unit, she considered setting up a consultancy focused on the police use of force.
“Because at that time, it seemed like every day on the news, we were hearing cases about officer-involved shooting cases,” she said. “Young, usually African American men were being shot and killed by law enforcement.”
“It was sort of a niche area, and not a lot of prosecutors focused on those cases and they are quite different from your traditional cases,” she said. “I was invited by the Georgia Sheriffs Association to their fall conference to speak to them about the use of force and policing in the 21st century.”
She decided it could be another arm of her practice, and she could train law enforcement, and act as a special prosecutor when cases involving police use of force were being prosecuted.
Run for State Court
Hill said she never got the chance to develop her plan for a public integrity consultancy, because in 2016 a number of State and Superior Court vacancies opened up in Cobb, and she decided to run for a state court seat.
“I put everything together as I was campaigning. And as a result of being in that race,” she said. “I had an opportunity to learn a lot about Cobb County because in the midst of campaigning, I went to many civic organization here in Cobb, I met a lot of attorneys. I just met lots of citizens in Cobb,and they in turn got a chance to meet me.”
“I got to meet the other candidates,” Hill said. “There were probably 16 or 17 of us. We kind of traveled in a pack because we were all out campaigning.”
“There were five folks in my race. It was a state court race for Judge Irma Glover’s seat. At the end of the general election, out of the five, I became one of two people who made it to a runoff,” she said.
“John Morgan and I were in a runoff, and he ultimately won that seat and is a fine judge,” said Hill.
Appointment to Magistrate Court
Hill said that Chief Magistrate Judge Joyette Holmes was on the campaign trail in 2016 too.
Holmes had been appointed chief magistrate to fill an open position, and was running for her first elected term.
About three months after the election, Holmes called Hill and offered her a position on the Magistrate Court.
“That’s where I have been for the past almost four years as judge. For three of those years I almost exclusively handled protective orders,” she said. “So it again allowed me to draw on the civil experience, because those are civil hearings. And it introduced me to a breadth of domestic issues.”
“Custody, support for orders of protection. Who stays in the marital home? Who has to leave? How to divide visitation, these were all issues now that I had to confront while doing the protective orders,” she said. “And although I am a Magistrate Court judge, I was sitting as an assisting Superior Court judge in that function because that is exclusively within the Superior Court jurisdiction.”
Hill said that she and two other Magistrate Court judges have assisting orders, and can perform duties that are in the jurisdiction of Superior Court.
“Once Joyette was appointed DA. I assumed the MCS calendar, which is the major drug trafficking calendar. And that is exclusively my calendar. It is a Superior Court calendar. But those cases come directly to me from the beginning of indictment,” Hill said. “I hear the motion of cases, I preside over the trial … so I am handling a full blown Superior Court calendar.”
“I also assist, for instance, if a judge needs me to cover one of their calendars when they’re out,” she said.
“It became very obvious to me that this is where my background has prepared me to serve.”
Reason for running for Cobb Superior Court
Hill was asked to tell why she is running, and why voters should cast their votes for her in the upcoming election.
“If I am elected, I will bring 30 years of legal experience to the bench,” she said. “And I do believe that experience prepares me to take over immediately and continue the people’s business on the Superior Court and to do so in a very competent and effective way. “
“I believe that I’m the candidate in this race who is best prepared to do that. and I get to do it in Cobb County, which is the county that I deliberately chose to serve, and not just on the bench but to serve as part of the community.”
“Cobb County residents were not introduced to me the very first time they saw my face on a billboard,” she said. “Or the very first time they saw my face on a campaign sign, or in a newspaper article.”
“That’s not the first time they were introduced to me. I have been an active part of Cobb County, and I think that’s important,” said Hill. “I think that judges should connect with the community. I don’t think people should see judges for the first time when they come into a courtroom.”
“I have gone to career days and spoken to Cobb County students,” she said.
“I preside over the high school mock trials when they need volunteers. I do the classroom to courtroom mock trial for middle schoolers, because I feel a responsibility and a passion to make sure that students get an opportunity to see our legal system up close and not just when they’re in trouble.”
“One of the things that I would want to do when elected Superior Court judge is to implement a program for youthful offenders and for first-time offenders who come into the court system, where they would be mentored by community volunteers who are professionals in our community, where we would have speakers come in and talk to them about those issues that are pertinent to their demographic, those things that can help build self-esteem, give perhaps some ideas or insights into things that they can do with their lives.”
“Even though they have had this hiccup, so to speak, in their background, it doesn’t have to be a complete hindrance,” said Hill “It is in fact, a bump in the road. But it doesn’t mean that their futures are forever useless.”
“And if I can help them get on the right track by participating in this court-ordered program, perhaps we can keep some of those youthful offenders from returning back as future felons in the system.”
“As a Magistrate Court judge, I see people all the time who, quite frankly, will ultimately qualify for the veterans court program or the drug court program,” said Hill. “I think if they got into those programs sooner rather than later, they’ll start getting the treatment that they need to address those underlying issues.”
“If they address the treatment within weeks of being arrested, versus long after being arrested, the likelihood of success is probably greater,” she said. “And that’s something that I want to be able to collaborate with some of the other judges to see if we could make that happen.”
“I’ve got ideas of what I want to do as a Superior Court judge, in addition to just serving in the traditional role, and I want to do it here in this community, and serve Cobb County residents and give the residents the benefit of my perspective and my experience and contribute to what is already a great bench.”