Some Texas Justice of the Peace courts are ignoring protections designed to protect tenants, with eviction being the result

Texas Housers’ Eviction Prevention Specialist Tori Tavormina has chronicled her observations overseeing the Courtwatch program in Harris County. Below is what she has personally witnessed in some Justice of the Peace courts.

In early 2022, I began observing and documenting about 200 eviction hearings per week in Harris County Justice of the Peace courts. Additionally, I oversee a small team composed of both staff members and volunteers at Texas Housers who also watch eviction proceedings. We watch court to better understand tenants experiencing the hardship of eviction and to make sure that judges are following the law and implementing the directives of the Supreme Court of Texas designed to minimize unnecessary evictions. Many tenants who stand before the court are completely dependent on judges to administer the law fairly.

To this point, I’ve witnessed a concerning pattern of Justices of the Peace disregarding important protections ordered by the Supreme Court of Texas. In the state of Texas, if a landlord has joined with a tenant to apply to state or local government for Emergency Rent Assistance, Justices of the Peace are legally required to abate eviction cases – putting them on hold for 60 days – but many judges don’t even ask landlords if they have an existing application. In Harris County, where eviction filing numbers are among the highest in the country, this protection often goes unmentioned.

This tenant protection comes from a Texas Supreme Court Emergency Order, which explicitly states that Justices “must confirm whether or not the plaintiff-landlord has any pending applications for rental assistance […] or has provided any information or documentation directly to a rental assistance provider for the purpose of receiving rental assistance,” (section b(ii)). If the landlord is participating in applications, the order demands Justices to abate the case for 60 days.

Fortunately, I’ve seen legal aid lawyers representing tenants get cases abated due to the emergency order. However, this should not be a rule that is only enforced when tenants have a lawyer, which is a rare occurrence. It is the responsibility of each Justice of the Peace to follow the Supreme Court of Texas’ Emergency Orders.  

When Texas judges do not follow the law, tenants suffer a devastating domino effect of compounding problems. Not only can this abdication lead to premature eviction judgments which are nearly impossible to reverse, but it can also lead to landlords defrauding the government. There have been numerous cases of landlords receiving Emergency Rental Assistance (ERA) funds after they have evicted the tenant meant to remain housed with that federal aid. The Texas Supreme Court and ERA administrators rely on Justices of the Peace to administer the rules, and, for the sake of our community and neighbors, we need to ensure these Justices are held accountable.

It is important to clarify that this order is a state-wide tenant protection that all Justices of the Peace in Texas follow. My observations are limited to Harris County JP Courts, but I would be surprised if this pattern is not also happening elsewhere in Texas.

Our lives depend on judges administering the law fairly. In the wake of the COVID crisis, massive increases in rents, and the affordable housing crisis we especially need a fair administration of Justice.

If you are a tenant or want more information on the legal breakdown of this emergency order protection, please check out TexasLawHelp and other resources. If you are looking to share your story with us and/or the public, you can fill out this form.

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