Our nation, our state and our city are taking necessary measures to slow the spread of coronavirus, protect citizens and prevent hospitals from being overwhelmed. Among these measures, courts across the nation have imposed moratoriums on eviction trials. On March 24, the New Mexico Supreme Court issued a press release and order “halting” evictions. In fact, the Supreme Court’s order does not halt evictions. Eviction trials will continue. The order allows only a temporary stay on some writs of restitution – the documents ordering sheriffs to evict people – and only if the family can prove financial hardship related to coronavirus. To ask for the stay, families must still attend the trial and the trial judge is not required to grant the stay. Moreover, any stay granted is temporary. Even if they prove hardship, families will be evicted at a later date.
In Bernalillo County Metropolitan Court, our state’s busiest court, 11,000 evictions are processed each year. Few tenants have lawyers. Most are poor, disabled or elderly. Many are struggling single parents. Landlords, tenants and lawyers crowd the courtroom waiting for their cases to be called. Each case lasts a few minutes. Most tenants lose. They get seven days to move or be removed by the sheriff. It is a very efficient – and for a poor family about to made homeless – brutal process.
On March 17, Metro Court was still busy. People waited in line, close to each other, at security. They rode elevators together to the ninth floor, the eviction floor. The hallway held 13 people, many elderly, one in a wheelchair, touching their faces, rubbing shoulders, coughing, sneezing. One courtroom held 25 people, sitting shoulder to shoulder. Papers passed between court staff and litigants. Time spent in eviction court shows there is no way for these mass evictions to take place without risking lives. If it continues, people will spread the virus in Metro Court. The latest order of the Supreme Court does little to change this.
The recent steps taken – allowing parties to appear by Google Hangout, providing lots of Purell, staying some writs – are a start. But they are not enough. Many poor people have low-budget cellphones, meagre phone plans and, especially for seniors and people with some disabilities, limited ability to use technology. Appearing and presenting evidence telephonically is simply not feasible. Families must go to court and risk their health, or not go and lose their homes by default. Faced with income loss due to coronavirus, families must choose between taking their kids to our crowded shelters or living on the streets. To stop eviction, these families still must go to court to prove hardship related to the coronavirus.
The court has the power and duty to do more, including stopping eviction hearings altogether, with exceptions for some emergencies, until the pandemic recedes. The court claims it has no legal authority to halt eviction trials. They say our state’s landlord-tenant law requires courts to continue holding eviction trials despite the health risks and inability of many to appear by phone or video. The court has misread the law. Our state Constitution gives the Supreme Court, not the Legislature, absolute authority to control procedure in the courtrooms, including authority to stay eviction hearings.
Meanwhile, evictions continue in Metro Court. On March 30, for example, two judges will hear 53 evictions in just two hours. Unless the Supreme Court acts, New Mexico families facing eviction will have to rely on Purell and a prayer.