It’s a Thursday morning in July at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City, Missouri and Judge Mary Weir is running one of four landlord-tenant dockets processing housing cases — usually landlords seeking to evict their tenants.
These state courtrooms, which typically try cases involving payday lenders and financial companies, move fast. Advocates defending renters describe them as assembly lines, and Judge Weir isn’t in the mood to wait.
“It is now 9:30 a.m., this is a landlord-tenant docket,” she says. “Folks, if you’re on the phone as a defendant, you should know you do have the right to defend yourself, but you also have the right to hire a lawyer. And you should know if you do represent yourself, the rules of evidence, and the rules of procedure still apply. You do not get a break because you’re not a lawyer, that is the law.”
Eviction courts have adjusted to Covid: Defendants can show up in person after a temperature check and pass through a metal detector; they mill about wearing masks until they’re called and are told to stand on blue dots taped on the floor as their cases are decided.
“For those who appear, the tension is palpable,” says Gina Chiala, a staff attorney and executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which provides free legal assistance to tenants. “They’re watching other tenants go down in flames, leaving confused and in tears, and they know they’re next. Judges don’t like evicting people, and they have a lot of cases, so they end up processing them quickly and glossing over what’s going to happen next. I know what’s happening; in 14 days, someone is going to come to that tenant’s door and kick them out.”
Those who don’t want to show up — and most won’t — can use the conference line and WebEx video conference option, approved by the Missouri Supreme Court. Listening to a recording of one of these calls in Weir’s court, it has all the irritations of dialing in to a meeting — odd scratches and refrains of “can you hear me now.” The reality is when the call is over, some participants will have lost their homes.
On this morning, one elderly lady asks for and is granted a delay; she’s about to restart her job at Walmart, suggesting she’ll soon have money for back rent. Another man gets a delay so he can have a translator; it takes a few questions before it’s established he’s deaf. But mostly, it’s default judgments. After Judge Weir reads the name of a case — typically a real estate firm versus some tenant — and nobody answers, she’ll wait a few moments, then announce a default. Eviction granted. Showing up in person at least offers the chance to get advice from Heartland or another legal aid group, which can make a difference.
“It’s bonkers to think justice is being served over a conference call,” says Wilson Vance, campaign manager for KC Tenants, a grassroots organization that fights for local renters. “They can’t even mute individual participants; there are babies crying, sirens going past the window. The judge doesn’t even have to look you in the eye to displace you. It makes me sick to my stomach thinking how many people have been wrongfully evicted.”
Ever since Missouri’s statewide Covid-19 eviction moratorium expired on May 31, the court has gradually resumed operation. In July, the court heard 245 rent and possession cases; there have been 270 more through August 25. Court records show that’s a third of last year’s volume, but much of June and July was spent going through the backlog. Chiala suspects that’s because attorneys for landlords were waiting for the CARES Act moratorium to expire, and rent was often covered by stimulus cash. Advocates and tenant activists fear with Covid lingering, hopes for more federal stimulus dwindling, and temporary renter protections expiring, tenants in Kansas City, and the nation, will soon experience more video conference calls like the ones in Judge Weir’s courtroom.
Chiala calls remote court a “mockery of due process,” and a St. Louis legal advocacy group, ArchCity Defenders, is challenging the practice in state supreme court. She says that oftentimes tenants can’t hear the landlord’s attorney during trial, strain to show evidence over a weak video connection, and worst of all, might blurt something out during trial without consulting with their lawyer. (A spokesperson for the Jackson County Court said “we have found that hearings via video and telephone conference have worked well for the litigants, the attorneys, and the judges.”)
All the flaws exposed by Covid are on display during these proceedings. Heartland, which is one of several legal aid groups providing assistance, only has the budget to provide a single attorney in court during a time when up to 200 cases are being heard a day. Black and Brown populations — more likely to have low incomes, or be employed in the service industries, or have pre-existing health conditions — have to choose between rolling the dice on potentially unreliable remote options, or showing up in person and risking infection for a chance at due process. In pre-pandemic days, roughly 70% of defendants didn’t show up, daunted by the courtroom process and unable to secure counsel; Chiala only has anecdotal data, but believes a majority of tenants aren’t showing up now, either.
“A lot of tenants have faith in the system,” Chiala says. “They have hard lives, they want to believe the court process is fair, that there will be sympathy because they lost their job to a pandemic. They don’t know how bad the system is rigged against them.”