Harris County proceeds with evictions hearings behind closed doors as COVID-19 cases rise

On May 19, the State of Texas allowed its eviction protections for renters to expire, leaving only tenants who live in subsidized or federally-backed housing with protections until July 25. The remaining tenants in Texas who cannot afford to pay rent are now at the mercy of local government and, more specifically, their eviction courts.

A handful of cities and counties in Texas have issued protections such as extending the eviction moratorium, mandating right to cure grace periods, or issuing rent capping orders. Most recently, Travis County Justices of the Peace issued a moratorium on eviction case hearings until July 22. But many cities in our state, including Houston, have not passed a policy which widely protects its renters during this ongoing emergency. Unlike Travis County, the justices of the peace in Harris County have not issued a long-term moratorium on eviction case hearings.

As many eviction proceedings began to resume in June, Texas Housers made phone calls to all Harris County Justice of the Peace courts to assess what is happening in their courtrooms. We wanted to observe how eviction cases were being handled, in advance of what many predict will be a flood of evictions over coming weeks.

We took for granted that JPs continued to open proceedings of their courts to the public. In a number of cases, our assumption proved incorrect.

In 1884, Oliver Wendell Holmes wrote in an opinion that members of the public enjoy a right of access to civil trials. This right, he said, is rooted in democratic principles:

“It is desirable that the trial of [civil] causes should take place under the public eye, … not because the controversies of one citizen with another are of public concern, but because it is of the highest moment that those who administer justice should always act under the sense of public responsibility, and that every citizen should be able to satisfy himself with his own eyes as to the mode in which a public duty is performed.”

With each call we made to Harris County Justice of the Peace courts, we grew more concerned both over the secrecy of the proceedings in some JP courts and for the fate of Texas renters as evictions begin to ramp up.

In this unprecedented crisis, it is vital that decisions from local and state government officials and justices of the peace are open to public scrutiny, especially considering the severe consequences of not upholding eviction suspensions. This is hindered when JP Courts bar the public from observing eviction proceedings.

The fact is that today evictions of Texas families are increasingly happening behind closed doors, and families are forced into homelessness during the COVID-19 pandemic.

There is a political dynamic to what’s happening in the JP courts. The elected justices have discretion how and when to evict renters. Voters and citizens should know how the judges they have elected are exercising their discretion to suspend evictions. Once again, the only way to know is to be able to observe the court proceedings.

The Texas Justice Court Training Center has issued guidance for Justices of the Peace regarding the handling of eviction cases. It states that “courts may (but are not required to) issue eviction citations now…” however, “they must not be held in person unless held in compliance with the county’s mandatory operating plan.” The center also offers resources for courts about setting up technology and notices in order to hold court remotely.

The Harris County Justice of the Peace website offers “Court Web Streams” under the Helpful Links of its landing page with Zoom rooms available for criminal and civil courts, but not for Justices of the Peace. Thus, the technology is available for JPs to open their courtrooms to the public — if they choose.

We attempted to contact each Harris County Justice of the Peace Court and speak to each office administrator who answered our call. Some of them had answers for us, others had to put us on hold to check with their supervisor, and a couple asked us to pursue our inquiry via email. For those who did not answer, we left messages. Only one returned our call.

The following recounts our experience with each JP in Harris County:

  • Justice of the Peace Court 1, Pl. 1 Eric William Carter: The receptionist was not sure how observing would proceed and advised that her supervisor would give a call back. We did not receive one.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 1, Pl. 2 David Patronella: We were told that the court was only doing hearings in person and they are not allowing observation due to COVID-19 and social distancing. They said that they were not offering a conferencing option because they were so backed up with the current cases, and were currently only offering remote hearings for smaller cases like occupational licenses.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 2, Pl. 1 Jo An Delgado: We were advised that proceedings will be held in person and there is limited space for observers. Parties in the hearing have been allowed to choose if they would like to opt into a remote hearing. If the party does not ask for the stipulation, the hearing will be held in person.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 2, Pl. 2 George Risner: We were informed the hearings are in person and the supervisor was busy. We could turn our inquiry into an email.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 3, Pl. 1 Joe Stephens: We did not call this court.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 2, Pl. 2 Lucia Bates: We were told the court is still closed to the public, and evictions have not cleared yet. We were advised that court would be limited in capacity when it resumed and remote hearings were an option but they were not sure how these hearings would be handled once they resume.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 4, Pl. 1 Lincoln Goodwin: We were told that court may resume on May 26 and jury trials would resume on June 30. Only the parties involved in the case would be allowed in the courtroom. Only a few parties were requesting a telephonic hearing.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 2, Pl. 2 Laryssa Kordoba: We were asked to email our inquiry and to be specific in our observing intentions due to the tight space in court. We were told that some proceedings will be virtual and it may be possible to observe those.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 5, Pl. 1 Russ Ridgway: We were informed that space is limited in the courtroom and they would not be allowing anyone outside of the case parties to be present. Only some hearings have been held telephonically.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 5, Pl. 2 Jeff Williams: We were told that they were not allowing anyone that isn’t on the docket into the courtroom. The court was experimenting with virtual hearings but nothing was currently set up.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 6, Pl. 1 Richard Vara: The number for this court did not work.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 6, Pl. 2 Angela Rodriguez: We were informed that the court is closed and operating telephonically. The court was barely giving out eviction hearing dates. They said they would speak to a supervisor and inform us about the possibility of setting up or allowing telephonic observation.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 7, Pl. 1 Jeremy Brown: During the call, we were greeted with hold music. There was no answer.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 7, Pl. 2 Sharon Burney: We were told the dockets are limited and there’s limited seating. A supervisor returned our call stating that if we were interested in observing, and if there was space and a possibility, they could accommodate us to observe.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 8, Pl. 1 Holly Williamson: We were told that the court was open to the public and observing could be done in person. They are offering electronic or telephonic hearings. If the parties do not have such access, they could come for an in-person hearing.
  • Justice of the Peace Court 8, Pl. 2 Louie Ditta: We were greeted by an answering machine.

During the first week of June, Houston JPs set eviction dockets for cases that had been reset during the pandemic. If this continues as planned, over 3,000 may be evicted from their homes in Harris County during the month of June.

The following is the number of eviction cases set per JP Court in the weeks of June 1 – June 19:

JP Ct.PlJudge# Eviction hearings held June 1-5# Eviction hearings held June 8-12# Eviction hearings held June 15-19
1.1Carter 1079

Without resources, protection, or government aid, tens, if not hundreds of thousands of our fellow Texans will be evicted in one of the most perilous moments of our state’s history. Many will become homeless in the midst of a pandemic. We all need to act to prevent this from happening. We have seen that some Harris County JPs are using the discretion afforded them by the Texas Supreme Court to forestall evictions. Others are not. Some JP’s are continuing in the tradition of maintaining open court rooms to permit the public and the media to see what is happening with evictions. Others are not.

We urge Justices of the Peace in Houston and statewide to consider the gravity of displacing thousands of residents in the midst of the pandemic and to maintain the tradition of open courtrooms and demonstrate the compassion of enlightened justice.

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