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Lawyer calls court an eviction machine

The first time I went to Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court to watch an eviction proceeding, in the summer of 2015, I left feeling numb. I had just arrived in Albuquerque from New York City, where I had been a tenant attorney for the previous decade, and I was hoping to get a sense of how landlord-tenant disputes were adjudicated in preparation for my work in UNM School of Law’s Clinical Program.

What I saw in the courtrooms I visited that day – rapid-fire, unrecorded hearings in which unrepresented tenants were presumed to be some combination of lazy, unreliable and untrustworthy – left me with the impression that Metro Court was not a place where tenants had any real chance of being heard, much less of achieving justice.

Fast forward several years, and I wasn’t surprised to learn that a Metro Court judge, Daniel Ramczyk, is being sued by the ACLU for refusing a hearing-impaired tenant’s lawful request for an American Sign Language interpreter. According to the transcript of the hearing, after finding for the landlord in the case, Ramczyk called the tenant an “obstructionist” who came to his courtroom to “cause trouble.”

While Ramczyk’s behavior is appalling, it would be a mistake to view it as an outlier, as it is in fact representative of the treatment meted out to poor and working people who walk through the doors of Metro Court every day seeking a fair hearing.

Tenants appearing before the three Metro Court judges who handle eviction cases have virtually no shot at prevailing. In fact, they are barely given the opportunity to assert defenses and are regularly treated with contempt by the judges charged with impartially deciding their cases.

In a typical eviction hearing, a judge uses a prefabricated script to walk a landlord through the elements of their case, often without eliciting any sworn testimony or evidence to substantiate a claim. Then, the same judge turns to the tenant and asks – in an open-ended way – if they have anything to add. Rarely do judges ask questions regarding the conditions of an apartment or other circumstances that might defeat a landlord’s claim.

In other words, landlords are directed by the court toward their goals – a money judgment and/or an eviction – while tenants are left grasping to mount a defense. All of this takes place in the span of around three minutes, a strikingly short amount of time considering all that is at stake for a tenant who is being evicted – finding a new home on short notice, the loss of longstanding community ties, having to relocate children to a new school.

After a couple of years representing tenants in Metro Court eviction proceedings, I found myself struggling with how to discuss the court with students, most of whom came to law school with the belief that our legal system is anchored in the rule of law and basic standards of fairness. Many of my students walked away from Metro Court completely flabbergasted, questioning the legitimacy of what they had seen. After a morning spent observing eviction proceedings, one student memorably commented that they had seen more due process at the MVD.

The recent incident involving Judge Ramczyk should be closely scrutinized, but it should not be exceptionalized. Anyone with a moral compass should have grave concerns about how eviction proceedings are carried out in Metro Court. The problems in Metro Court go well beyond a single judge and require an examination of the ways in which the court systematically disadvantages poor and vulnerable people.

Metro Court, as it currently functions, is little more than an eviction machine. It is well past time for that to change.

John Whitlow is a tenant attorney and law professor at the City University of New York School of Law. From 2015-18, he taught at UNM School of Law.

 

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