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Report: CT judges’ professional backgrounds impact eviction rates

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Report: CT judges’ professional backgrounds impact eviction rates

Feb 12, 2024 | 4:54 pm ET
By Ginny Monk
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Belongings of evicted people in New Haven are stored at a warehouse at New Haven Public Works Department, waiting to be picked up. Five to six evictions take place a week on average, said Tariq Dasent, an employee at the department. YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG
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Belongings of evicted people in New Haven are stored at a warehouse at New Haven Public Works Department, waiting to be picked up. Five to six evictions take place a week on average, said Tariq Dasent, an employee at the department. YEHYUN KIM / CTMIRROR.ORG

Renters are more likely to be evicted if their housing court case goes before former corporate attorneys or prosecutors, who have a disproportionate presence in Connecticut state courts, according to a new report.

The Monday report from the People’s Parity Project — an organization of attorneys and students from law schools across the country, including a chapter at the University of Connecticut — examined case outcomes and judges’ professional backgrounds in Connecticut housing court.

The study shows that tenants who appear before judges who, as lawyers, had primarily represented people — such as former general practice, legal aid, Attorney General’s office and plaintiffs’ litigation attorneys — are significantly more likely to have a more favorable case resolution than if they appeared before judges who previously had represented organizations, such as corporate attorneys or prosecutors.

Also, landlords tended to fare better in court, no matter the background of the judge, the report shows.

“If we really work in just an objective justice system, you should expect to find just no impact at all in one direction or the other,” said Steve Kennedy, organizing and network director at the People’s Parity Project. “So first, we found that there is an impact. Your professional background can influence the outcomes for the people appearing before you.”

The report analyzed more than 3,600 cases presided over by 62 judges from January 2018 to December 2023. 

Researchers scored case outcomes from zero to three, with zero being in favor of the tenant and three being in favor of the landlord. The scores between represented various agreements that can be made in housing court mediation.

The average score for all categories fell at 2.19, strongly in favor of landlords.

“For renters, you’re kind of at a disadvantage, no matter who you’re in front of,” Kennedy said. “So we’re not looking at extremes, like if you appear before a prosecutor, you’re getting evicted, and if you appear before a legal aid attorney you are getting to save your home. We scored this [report] in a way where you can kind of look at shades of benefit for a renter.”

Efforts to even the field

Over the past few years, there have been more efforts to improve diversity on the bench, as research shows most judges have historically been white men. The new report says professional diversity should also be under consideration.

The COVID-19 pandemic also highlighted disparities in the country’s housing system. People of color and women, particularly Black women, are much more likely to face eviction. 

The number of evictions in Connecticut spiked soon after pandemic-era eviction protections ended. An eviction can have wide-ranging, negative effects on health, community, education and access to transportation, among other outcomes.

Judges are influenced by their past experiences, just like anyone else, attorneys and advocates say.

“There’s nothing magical about throwing a robe on that makes you forget all of the things that brought you to this point,” Kennedy said. “The only way I think that we can make a system that is fairest for everybody is to make sure that all of those experiences are represented.”

In Connecticut, attorneys can apply to be considered for judgeship appointments. Once they’re approved by the Judicial Selection Commission, the governor nominates people from the approved list. The state legislature approves the nominees.

A 2022 study from the People’s Parity Project found that former prosecutors and corporate attorneys were overrepresented on the bench in Connecticut state courts. Judges who formerly worked in public defense, civil rights, legal aid, labor or plaintiff’s litigation were underrepresented.

“Despite this concern, Connecticut’s governors and state legislators have stacked the judiciary with judges from a small range of professional backgrounds,” the new report says.

Kennedy said his group has had conversations with the executive branch about improving diversity among nominees. The group looked at years on the bench, race and gender diversity as well, he said, but they found the strongest connection in eviction case outcomes to professional diversity.

Gov. Ned Lamont’s office didn’t immediately respond with a comment. Neither of the co-chairs of the Judicial Committee commented.

Tenants are less likely to have legal representation in court compared to landlords. Connecticut has sought to correct that imbalance by establishing a right to counsel program in certain ZIP codes for income-qualified tenants.

Lamont’s proposed budget adjustment for the upcoming fiscal year included $2 million more to the program, which was founded using COVID relief funds.

Attorneys from other states said they’ve seen this play out as well.

Ugochi Anaebere-Nicholson, a staff attorney at the Public Interest Law Project in California, said she thinks the experience of working with people in poverty can shape the way a person views issues in housing court.

“Those things I think all come to bear when you are deciding and determining outcomes of cases, because you’re bringing all of that human element, all of that personal experience with you when you come to the bench,” Anaebere-Nicholson said.

She sits on the commission that reviews state judgeship applicants in California. She said they’ve worked to try to improve professional diversity, as well as diversity of race, gender and sexual orientation among the judgeship.

Paul Sheridan, a former legal aid lawyer in West Virginia, said he thinks law schools and mentorship of young attorneys can play a part in diversifying the bench. More diversity could have big implications for people facing eviction, he added.

“It becomes a question of what kinds of breaches [of lease agreements] deserve a little bit of sympathy and extra consideration, and judges have lots of discretion,” Sheridan said. “So how you apply your discretion is kind of affected by the kind of life experiences you have.”

Sheridan said it also is hard for lawyers who finish school with thousands in student loan debt to enter lower-paying jobs like legal aid.

The People’s Parity report includes several recommendations, such as lowering the student debt burden. The average law student owes more than $160,000 in student debt, according to the study.

Many students enter law school hoping to get jobs such as legal aid that the report refers to as “pro-people legal professions,” but by their second year of school, many change their minds and decide to join big law firms. The report says that there should be more effort to encourage law students to enter public interest work.

It also recommends increasing judicial clerkship pay, increasing transparency in the judicial selection process and more commitment to increased nominations of attorneys with “pro-people experience.”

“It’s a difficult time in our country, but a really important time, to be raising these questions,” Sheridan said. “We’re so polarized. So most people are thinking ‘How do I appeal to people who think like me?’ instead of ‘How can we reorganize society so that we all feel safer, better represented, treated more fairly?’ I think that’s where we need to go.”