It’s a Thursday morning in July at the Jackson County Circuit Court in Kansas City, Missouri and Judge Mary Weir is running one of four landlord-tenant dockets processing housing cases — usually landlords seeking to evict their tenants. These state courtrooms, which typically try cases involving payday lenders and financial companies, move fast. Advocates defending renters describe them as assembly lines, and Judge Weir isn’t in the mood to wait.
“It is now 9:30 a.m., this is a landlord-tenant docket,” she says. “Folks, if you’re on the phone as a defendant, you should know you do have the right to defend yourself, but you also have the right to hire a lawyer. And you should know if you do represent yourself, the rules of evidence, and the rules of procedure still apply. You do not get a break because you’re not a lawyer, that is the law.”
Eviction courts have adjusted to Covid: Defendants can show up in person after a temperature check and pass through a metal detector; they mill about wearing masks until they’re called and are told to stand on blue dots taped on the floor as their cases are decided.
“For those who appear, the tension is palpable,” says Gina Chiala, a staff attorney and executive director of the Heartland Center for Jobs and Freedom, which provides free legal assistance to tenants. “They’re watching other tenants go down in flames, leaving confused and in tears, and they know they’re next. Judges don’t like evicting people, and they have a lot of cases, so they end up processing them quickly and glossing over what’s going to happen next. I know what’s happening; in 14 days, someone is going to come to that tenant’s door and kick them out.”
The Harsh Future of American Cities
How the pandemic will alter our urban centers, now and maybe forever
Those who don’t want to show up — and most won’t — can use the conference line and WebEx video conference option, approved by the…