Someone sounded the alarm. EMERGENCY: 500 EVICTION CASES ON VALENTINE’S DAY
Tenants were in need. Legal aids jumped into action. Advocates were mobilized. The court was observed:
The 92 person occupancy cap of the courthouse was maxed out before the docket began, and the hallways were lined with folks waiting to be called on. The court clerk at the bench calls the next case so the parties can come forward. Another staff member stands at the courtroom door and yells out a name consecutively, “TENANT! TENANT! TENANT!” Then turns back inside and says, “No answer in the hall, Your Honor.” Another default judgment passed in less than 40 seconds.
Justices of the Peace (JP), who are elected judges that preside over eviction cases, have full control over the administration of their courthouse. They hire their staff, schedule their dockets, and pass judgments to cases filed in their courtroom. In Harris County, we have 16 JPs in eight Constable Precincts. Each Precinct has two judges where people can file small claims, repair and remedy, and eviction lawsuits in the Place of their choosing.
The original case count for Israel García’s Valentine’s Day dockets was 498 eviction cases. As of the evening before, the first eviction docket, scheduled for 8am, had 204 cases listed, the 1pm docket listed 240 cases, and there was a smaller docket listed at 3pm with 6 cases. Five hearings, either small claims or repair and remedy lawsuits, were scheduled for 11am. Judge García also married couples during his 10 minute recesses, as it was Valentine’s Day after all.
as of 2/16/2023
One needs to pause and wonder what type of time management secrets the courthouse must have to expect to resolve all of these cases and get everyone out the door by their posted closing time of 4pm. What type of mathematics does the court do to think they could pile hundreds of people into a building for a prolonged period of time and deduce justice by listening to someone speak for 30 seconds? Or is there something they know that we don’t?
In an ideal world, tenants and landlords would have equal rights and protections under the law. Landlord testimony would not weigh more than a tenant’s, and contradicting testimonies would need evidence to suss out a proper judgment. We believe all of this takes time, dialogue, and discovery on the JP’s part. Is this doable when you have hundreds of people waiting for their turn? It is unfair to expect the parties of the case to spend an entire day, and possibly their evening, sitting in the courthouse missing work and losing wages or having to make the decision to leave the courthouse before their case is called because they have other responsibilities to tend to, like their children and employment, because of the court’s mishandling of its schedule.
I witnessed as one by one, tenants, property managers, small landlords, and lawyers walked to the bench when they were called, and then exited the courtroom so two more people could be let in. The crowd never got smaller; the Judge took four 10-minute recess, during which I can only assume he possibly did some weddings, took a bathroom break, tended to some Zoom evictions, and had a quick bite. The morning 8am eviction docket ended at 1:30pm. It was announced then that the 11am hearings would be moved after the eviction dockets were completed in order to clear the courthouse. The 1pm docket started immediately after the announcement.
How often does this happen?
In the past year, there were 40 dockets scheduled in Harris County with over 100 eviction cases. Of these, 19 were heard by Judge García, 13 were heard by Judge Stephens, and 8 were heard by Judge Goodwin.
- 7.1% of the dockets heard in Judge García’s court had over 100 cases (19 out of 266)
- 13.3% of the dockets heard in Judge Stephens’ court had over 100 cases (13 out of 98)
- 2.2% of the dockets heard in Judge Goodwin’s court had over 100 cases (8 out of 370)
While Stephens and Goodwin scheduled dockets with over 100 cases, Judge García was the only judge who scheduled dockets with over 200 cases (three times) and even one docket with over 300 cases. And within the next two weeks, Judge García and Judge Goodwin each have three dockets with more than 100 cases scheduled.
These scheduling practices taken on by a few JPs cannot lead to just trials. JPs must engage in practices that cultivate harm reduction. Evictions are acts of violence against individuals and families, mostly low income and if they cannot pay rent, obviously economically struggling. Justice of the Peace courts should not be conveyor belts for landlords to sweep out unwanted tenants.
What are other judges doing???
Below is a table reflecting the total number of eviction dockets that Harris County JPs have held in the span of a year, including the average number of cases per docket and the maximum number of cases the judge has scheduled for a single docket. It is clear that no other JPs are utilizing its scheduling practice to pack their courts with landlords and tenants. However, JP Williamson, who is still on the bench, is very close to it, and her case average is the second highest among exiting, incoming, and incumbent JPs behind JP Stephen with an average of 61.3 cases per docket. Some JPs average less than 15 cases per docket.
There could be a few other reasons why there are significantly higher case volumes in one court over the other. Because the Constable Precincts have not been redrawn since 1973, there is a skew in population sizes and renter proportions. As noted by January Advisors, “more than 70% of the population growth in Harris County since 2000 has occurred in Precincts 4 and 5. In Precinct 6, the population actually decreased by 23,000.” This could have a major impact on how many cases are being filed within a single precinct, creating a need for more eviction dockets. However, this doesn’t mean that these cases cannot be spread out over the span of a week or broken down into smaller dockets throughout the day so attending parties do not have to arrive at the beginning of the day only to be called on four hours later.
Like previously mentioned, landlords can choose which Place they would like to file their case in. While we can only speculate why landlords would file in one courthouse over another, this can give landlords many advantages over their tenant. The data shows that in Precinct 7, JPs Adams and Burney have very similar average and max cases, but Burney has 55% increase in total dockets. In Precinct 8, while JPs Ditta and Williamson have the same number of dockets, Williamson’s max and average are significantly higher than Ditta’s. So we begin to wonder: Is this a filing problem? Is this a scheduling problem?
|Judge name (Precinct.Place)||Total # of dockets||Average # of cases per docket||Max # of cases per docket|
*no longer the elected JP. Data only from 2022.
**newly elected JP. Data only from 2023.
Slowly the crowd started to thin in the courtroom. Could it be that we were really nearing the end, or were people deciding to leave because of how long they’d been waiting? The 1pm docket concluded the in-person cases at 6:15pm, including three recess. The Judge and the Nationwide representative, who stood in for every plaintiff in the 1pm docket, left to take the remaining cases on Zoom. I asked a clerk if the 3pm eviction docket was canceled, and he said that those cases are all on Zoom. A woman sitting behind me hears all of this and says out loud, “wait, what’s going on?” I turn to see her and a little girl sitting on the long bench. I tell her I heard the Judge say he was going to do the Zoom cases, and she tells me that “the people on Zoom are sitting on their couches at home on their phones or computers. I was on the 11am docket. What about me? I’m here in person with my 5 year old. I got here at 10:30 am. Why am I not a priority?”
Judge Israel García made his priority that day clear: evictions.
If you would like to join our Houston Eviction Solidarity Network, please use this form and we will be in touch with you!