Welcome to finals week! It’s a glamorous life.
By the time we go to blogosphere print (with more 0s and 1s than ink and plates, but let me dream), I’ll have one more three-hour marathon to run. Rather than share my Donations or Constitutional Criminal Procedure outlines (copyrights pending), I will attempt to actually keep your interest. Make sure that you have a valid testament and that they have a valid warrant—and you, too, could a law school exam.
Though law school is a three-year Bar prep, I have found the assignments outside the classroom—and outside the certification test material—the most impactful. One of those assignments this semester brought me to the magical land of eviction court.
Ok, “magical” if you’re really into stripping away the lacquered layers and steeping in the shocking reality. I do like sticking my finger into loose sockets.
And, rest assured, our eviction courts have no lacquer in their budgets.
New Orleans provides a choose-your-own adventure for eviction viewers—or at least a choose your side of the river. First City Court is in the worn, utilitarian Civil District Court building on Poydras and Loyola. It’s the type of building a Belarusian would undoubtedly call “modern.”
During my first trip to “the CDC” (as its acquaintances-turned-tenants call it), I was amazed to not find Dr. Fauci’s office. Amazed, but a bit thankful. The federally funded CDC probably has fresh paint on its walls.
The eastbank eviction court was still following certain COVID-19 protocols during my visits. Evictions were back in session, but blue painter’s tape reduced the gallery seating by a third. Outside the courtroom, however, things were a little more pre-pandemic.
The twelve-feet-wide hallway pulsated with action, a white folding table providing the centrifugal pull. The table, with two attorney chairs pushed against that flaking hallway wall, was a tenant help-desk: the spot for whispered, kneeling client meetings. “Yes, we met on the phone yesterday… I’m sorry we have to go so fast… Do you have a document I could see?” I could hear it all exiting the confidential meetings from my church pew seat, propped against the other wall—or about three feet away, for those diagraming at home.
Eviction courts have a real marketplace feel. For one, landlord and tenant sign outside the court door, pulling their deli number to be called later. Please, a thinner slice of days, your honor.
For another, bargaining is the expectation. There are pertinent points of law at play, from what I’ve read, but most often the presiding judge is trying to broker an agreeable deal. “How long do you need to leave? Can you wait for the weekend to pass? Two weeks, by consent agreement.” The stakes may seem to be homeless v. housed, but the real goal is just a stay of eviction. A few days and no possessions on the front lawn would suffice.
And the parties show the limited horizons: many times no one is even there to answer the civil sheriff’s deli-number call. Nationwide default judgments—those pitting a landlord against a no-show tenant—exceeds 50% of the caseload. New Orleans’ numbers are in line with that. During one morning docket, I saw twenty-one cases, eleven of which ended with the default judgment refrain: “Twenty-four hours.” As in, the tenant can be forcibly removed by the next afternoon.
The final marketplace similarity is the speed of it all. Guess how long those twenty-one cases took?
No, really, guess.
Twenty-one cases in a cool forty-seven minutes. Now, my last math class was as a high school junior (Jesuit High Math Department had seen enough of me), but even I know that’s only a little over two minutes per case. Parties are called, appearances are made, documents are distributed—just sprinkle some seconds of fluffy, non-performance phrases and, poof, we done. Convince me that’s not magic.
Second City Court, for those better-bankers out there, is the other court archetype. Not a building from Governmental Pragmatic Weekly, the Algiers courthouse appears out of central casting: red-bricked, wooden-staircased, heavily ceiling-fanned. If you had any doubt of the place’s history, an entrance plaque reads: “founded ca. 1896.” (Ok, that sign brings me a smidge of doubt. Like, we didn’t write down dates 125 years ago? Circa 1896? We’re stepping foot in the ancient Algerian pyramid, folks.)
No matter the different backdrop, the same actors took the stage. Pulling the levers, working the conveyor belt.
Bureaucracy gets a bad name, to be sure. There must be a system to guide our interactions, and eviction courts do provide flashes of humanity, with a local leader huddling parties to try to find a solution. But it depends on the mood of that leader, on the justice of a process that can begin and end within forty-eight hours of rent due, on tenants that pull out documents from Schwegmann bags and judgments that follow a two-minute inquiry.
It’s a peculiar kind of magic. The magic of making the sausage. The magic of eviction courts.
It’s the stripped down, lacquer-free, finger-shocking magic of my latest semester. The magic of human theater.
Every court’s a stage, a marketplace, a revealer of magic—in our midst and down our block.
The second weekend of Jazz Fest will always mean the Neville Brothers. Though the St. Monica Parish products stopped closing out the festival grounds a decade ago, the second Sunday always feels filled with their spirit. Check out the newly installed memorials for Art and Charles in the Jazz Fest Ancestors area near Congo Square. But first, check out their 1992 second-Sunday performance.