I hope, by now, you’ve read Jacob Steimer’s terrific story on the differences in how the six General Sessions Civil Court judges handle eviction cases. It’s my favorite kind of piece because it takes something the average reader isn’t familiar with and makes it relevant. 

That doesn’t mean the story is without layers. And as Election Day approaches, what strikes me as particularly meaningful is the different ways the judges view their roles as justices. 

Generally, judges manage court proceedings; they ensure laws are followed (as they interpret them). In Jacob’s story, some of the General Sessions judges referred tenants to the Emergency Rental Assistance program and others didn’t because they wanted to remain impartial or they didn’t want to “legislate from the bench.” 

The ERA program covers up to 12 months of past-due rent and two months of future rent. An eviction, as Jacob’s story points out, can drive someone further into poverty by pushing them toward worse housing, ruining their credit and cutting them off from the community they depend upon. 

It’s true that judges shouldn’t take sides. Yet, as Jacob’s story points out, the system has already taken a side because the state law is partial to landlords. If the scales of justice should be balanced, isn’t that a judge’s job? 

But the greater point, I think, is that judges have a choice in how they run their courtrooms. If a tenant leaves their eviction hearing unclear on what’s happened, it’s fair to wonder why that’s not important to the judge. And if a tenant leaves fully informed, it’s fair to wonder why that’s not the standard. 

It also means that there’s no one way for a court to be run. That’s something Jacob is digging into for his next story. Jacob turned his attention to the eviction courts in Louisville, Kentucky. He chose that city because  Memphis and Louisville have populations around 600,000 and metropolitan-area populations around 1.3 million. Both states are considered red states with landlord-friendly laws. And yet, as you’ll read in his piece (look for it this week!), the courts are run differently. 

We can ponder the reasons why. And then, we, the people, can ask our judges to do the same. 

Adrienne Johnson Martin is executive editor of MLK50: Justice Through Journalism. Contact her at adrienne.martin@mlk50.com

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