Questions about eviction? Landlord-Tenant Town Hall provides legal advice. Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and Judge Mik Pappas try to combat housing insecurity with workshop
By Amanda Waltz
Over the past few years, housing experts have found a disturbing pattern of high eviction rates in cities throughout the U.S. As a result, local governments, community organizations, and housing advocates have come together to try and combat this issue.
On Tue., March 12, the Philadelphia-based organization Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC) and 31st Magisterial District Judge Mik Pappas will try to empower Pittsburgh citizens with a Landlord-Tenant Town Hall.
As the Facebook event page points out, the Landlord-Tenant Town Hall was organized in response to concerns about access to affordable housing, particularly in Pittsburgh's rapidly changing East End, where Black tenants feel especially pushed out by development in the wake of the highly contentious Penn Plaza demolition. Hosted by Pappas, the event, held at the Bloomfield Garfield Community Center, seeks to educate citizens on the legal process of eviction.
PMC president and CEO, Maida Malone, says they approached the Pittsburgh Foundation about funding for the workshop due to the organization’s work to eliminate housing insecurity.
“They, being extremely sensitive to what’s happening the community, particularly around the high rate of evictions, asked if we could initially focus our programming around landlord-tenant disputes, and we were very happy to do that,” says Malone.
In 2017, the Pittsburgh Foundation launched a research project inspired by the 2016 Pulitzer Prize-winning book Evicted: Poverty and Profit in the American City by Harvard sociology professor Matthew Desmond. Conducted in collaboration with the Allegheny County Department of Human Services, the project looked at filings for eviction in 2016 in Allegheny County. Of the 1,227 cases filed by City Housing Authority officials in 2016, 142 ended in actual evictions.
While a 2018 report by the Eviction Lab at Princeton University found that Pittsburgh eviction rates remain low compared to the national average, housing advocates argue the numbers only account for cases that actually make it to court. Tenants are more likely to move out after receiving an eviction notice rather than fight it, as an eviction filing would go on their rental history and give landlords a reason to deny future applications.
Malone says that over the past few years it became clear to PMC that most people who lack resources or an understanding of the judicial system are at a disadvantage when trying to navigate eviction proceedings.
“Because there are so many people … who are not able to afford counsel to represent them, they can find the judicial system and the legal processes very difficult to manage, particularly if they’re facing other stresses in their lives,” she says. “It’s difficult for them to really understand exactly what they need to do to represent themselves and to protect their rights or reasonably resolve a dispute with their landlord.”
To try and alleviate this, PMC started doing the town hall workshops in different locations through Pennsylvania. Malone estimates that they have held several across the state in the last two months alone and plan to do more in the near future.
Each event recruits local magisterial court judges, lawyers, and other experts to volunteer their time and help attendees feel more comfortable engaging with the courts.
“There really has been, on their part, a real openness and willingness to do this, which I think also helps, because oftentimes when people confront the judicial system it’s usually unpleasant for them,” says Malone. “My hope as well in doing this is, not only are we benefitting community members, but we’re also helping them to see judges in circumstances where they are willingly giving up their time and coming out to the community to talk to people and answer their questions and help them.”
The first panel at the Bloomfield Garfield Community Center includes attorneys from Action Housing, Inc., the Community Justice Project, and the Pennsylvania Office of Attorney General. The second panel features stakeholders from the City of Pittsburgh Housing Opportunity Fund, the Pittsburgh Commission on Human Relations, Pittsburgh UNITED, Omicelo, the Department of Human Services of Allegheny County, and the East Liberty Coalition of Organized Residents.
All attendees will also receive an up-to-date Landlord-Tenant Handbook, produced by PMC. To make the event as accessible as possible, it’s also free to attend and offers free childcare.
“We want to help underserved residents who can’t afford counsel have as much information as they can to be better able to navigate the judicial system,” says Malone.
By Kate Giammarise
Going to court for a housing case — either as a landlord or a tenant — can be a confusing and intimidating experience for anyone without a legal background.
“There's a guy wearing a robe, who's ordering people around,” joked District Judge Bruce Boni, as to why people in court sometimes get flustered or nervous.
Mr. Boni, a district judge for McKees Rocks and Stowe, was speaking Monday at one of a series of forums organized by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts to help both landlords and tenants better understand the court process.
Don't expect his court to be be like a television courtroom drama, he advised.
Rather, it should be a civil discussion between both sides, even though it can involve highly charged and emotional matters such as someone losing a place to live.
“It's not a forum for a shouting match,” he said.
The vast majority of people who appear before him in housing cases do not have attorneys, Mr. Boni said, and that is common in eviction cases.
“Our purposed here today is, in part, to demystify the court, and the court system, and the legal process that is involved in settling landlord-tenant disputes,” Mr. Boni explained to nearly 40 people gathered Monday at the office of the nonprofit Focus on Renewal in McKees Rocks.
Such cases can involve potential monetary judgments and potential evictions.
Mr. Boni reviewed everything from filing fees, to what documents to bring to court, to what to expect when you show up, to appeals.
He also fielded questions about security deposits, court interpreters, and how much notice needs to be given before evicting a tenant.
An analysis last year by the Post-Gazette found many eviction cases are decided as quickly as a matter of minutes, often without the tenant present. Many eviction cases go to court over small amounts of money, the newspaper’s analysis found.
A representative from Neighborhood Legal Services, which represents low-income individuals, was also available to answer questions.
“I hope people leave armed with our handbook, lots of information, and just feel more empowered,” said Maida Milone, president and CEO of Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts. The event was one of several; they are funded by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts and The Pittsburgh Foundation.
“Many folks don’t know what a district magistrate’s office does,” said Cindy Haines, executive director of Focus on Renewal.
There will be another event for both landlords and tenants at 6 p.m. Tuesday at South Hills Interfaith Movement, 41 Macek Drive, Room 108, in Baldwin Borough. The speaker will be District Judge David Barton. Refreshments and food will be provided.
Chestnut Hill College and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts Collaborate to Foster Reform and Awareness About PA Courts
By Kevin Tierney
Chestnut Hill College and Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts recently announced a new initiative that will result in an ongoing collaboration to engage and inform the community about the PA judicial system and examine opportunities for reform.
As part of the partnership, students from Chestnut Hill College (CHC) have the chance to volunteer and partake in a variety of internship opportunities provided by Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC).
In their new alliance, CHC and PMC will co-sponsor an event on November 13th at 6:00 p.m., titled “Court Basics 101,” a workshop and Q&A hosted by Maida Milone, the president of PMC. Held in the Redmond Room at CHC, the workshop will illuminate the procedures of the Pennsylvania Judicial System, detail how the courts are organized and discuss how they function and operate — from the layout of courtrooms to how judges are selected to what to do to become a more knowledgeable citizen. A reception will follow at 7:15 p.m.
“We look forward to building this partnership with Chestnut Hill College,” Milone said. “Our initiative with the College enables us to continue our outreach within the community and inspire a new generation of reformers.”
PMC is a statewide nonprofit and nonpartisan organization devoted to ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can be confident they will receive qualified, fair and impartial judges. It accomplishes this through its numerous programs, including the Landlord-Tenant Court, Citizen Court Monitoring and Community Outreach, the latter of which sends ambassadors to communities with high percentages of court users to present educational workshops on the justice system. As part of its partnership with the Philadelphia Bail Fund, PMC works to reduce or eliminate cash bail by highlighting the current preliminary arraignment process, describing how decisions are made and explaining how access to freedom pretrial is determined.
By Maida Milone
When you believe something makes great good sense, you imagine the path to success being a straight line to the goal. That’s rarely, if ever, the case, of course. The natural confidence you feel when tackling a project can cause a trick of the mind, a belief that others will immediately see the logic of your position and share your passion for it. The disillusionment that follows their failure to adopt your plan wholeheartedly or to be cajoled into following you regardless of their questions or concerns can create rifts. Those rifts lead to paralyzingly partisanship or raised voices or stalemates, but never to consensus.
Coalition building is hard work, especially when what you want to accomplish has no natural constituency. It requires active listening, not that pale substitute of making eye contact while you are formulating your next point regardless of whether it is responsive to what the speaker has to say or not. No one changes their mind or finds their way to a different perspective if they are not heard.
Coalition building requires respect for those who disagree with you, even if they seem stubborn or unwilling to hear your arguments. They might have a good point or expose a flaw in your thinking that your enthusiasm blinds you from seeing. And while the experience of cognitive dissonance—that knot in your stomach that follows your recognition that someone else might have a good point and that you just might have to rethink or revise something in your plan—is so very hard to manage, it is an essential part of getting the job done well.
By Maida Milone and Julia Jones
Questions about judicial independence and accountability seem to be on just about everyone’s mind these days. Our hope for this article is to contribute to this critical national dialogue by taking a hard look at the processes by which judicial officers are selected and sharing some thoughts about how best to ensure the legitimacy of those selection processes. In particular, we examine here how “appointive systems” function and suggest ways in which they might bolster public confidence in their choices.
A word about us. Judicial selection systems are of particular interest to us. We are both associated with Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts (PMC). In the 1980s, public confidence in the Pennsylvania judiciary sank to an all-time low following a series of public judicial scandals. To restore citizens’ faith in the courts, then-Superior Court Judge Phyllis W. Beck joined with other respected civic leaders to form PMC. Established as a non-partisan, nonprofit organization dedicated to promoting judicial ethics, PMC has functioned as Pennsylvania’s only official “court watchdog” for nearly 30 years.
One of PMC’s core missions is merit selection reform, including amending Pennsylvania’s constitution to establish a meritbased appointive process for selecting its appellate judges and justices. To develop a model for a proposed appointive system for use in Pennsylvania, we surveyed a variety of appointive systems from across the country. We draw on that knowledge base here.
In this article, we first examine the perils of influence-seeking money in judicial elections in Pennsylvania and nationwide. Second, we briefly sketch various approaches to appointive judicial selection systems in use throughout the nation. Third, we review Delaware’s judicial appointment process and compare it with the model we have developed for meritbased selection of appellate judges and justices in Pennsylvania. Fourth, we take a look at some of the criticisms that have been leveled against merit selection processes. Finally, we share some thoughts on best practices for implementing a merit selection system to ensure public confidence in the quality and independence of jurists seated through that process.
Big Money’s Influence in Judicial Elections
To one extent or another, Pennsylvania has relied upon an elected judiciary since 1850. Today, even the most qualified judicial candidates for statewide appellate judgeships are dependent on campaign contributions from individuals and special interest groups with business before the courts. This dependency creates an appearance of impropriety that ultimately undermines public confidence in Pennsylvania’s courts and potentially threatens judicial independence. As of 2001, 90 percent of voters nationwide believed that special interest groups attempt to shape policy by contributing to judicial campaigns. Eighty percent of judges reported having the same concerns. As one Texas judge memorably said, calling judicial electoral systems “‘imperfect’ is a G-rated description,” and noted that he and every member of his court “aggressively” favors replacing them Recognizing that judicial elections would also eliminate the need for aspiring judges to fundraise, PMC has been a longtime supporter of merit selection reform.
As recently as November 7, 2017, Pennsylvanians voted to retain two sitting Supreme Court Justices and elected one for a 10-year term, all of whom were required to raise some amount of money in order to be competitive candidates. One of the candidates for the open seat on the bench raised significant dollars from an interest group that were used to fuel a last-minute television ad blitz against the candidate’s opponent that some people viewed as unfairly slanted. This election, not unlike others in the past, resulted in candidates who were deemed “unqualified” for the bench by the Commonwealth’s bar associations defeating candidates who were deemed “highly qualified.”
According to the Brennan Center for Justice, a nonpartisan nonprofit that tracks court issues, Pennsylvania’s 2015 Supreme Court election “cost” nearly $16 million dollars, including $12 million in television spending — a form of advertising that often disseminates negative or inflammatory information about judicial candidates and their past decisions. Moreover, voters usually had no idea who was paying for this advertising. The Center found that only 3 percent of the organizations that funded television spending in the race did so transparently — the identities of most donors were undisclosed.
State Farm agreed to pay $250 million on the brink of a trial to customers who claimed the company tried to rig the Illinois justice system to wipe out a $1 billion jury verdict from 19 years ago.
The customers were seeking as much as $8.5 billion in damages in a civil racketeering trial that was set to start Tuesday in federal court in East St. Louis, Illinois. A judge granted preliminary approval to the accord and set a final fairness hearing for December.
The biggest U.S. auto insurer was accused in the case of leading an effort to recruit a judge friendly to its cause for the Illinois Supreme Court, secretly funding Judge LLoyd Karmeier’s 2004 election campaign by funneling money through advocacy groups that didn’t disclose donors. Under the federal Racketeer Influenced and Corrupt Organizations Act, any damages would have been tripled.
The company denied any wrongdoing in settling the claim. The settlement “is made simply to bring an end to the entire litigation,” and “to avoid protracted litigation and appeals that could continue for several more years,” said company spokesman Jim Camoriano.
State Farm “has consistently denied participating in a RICO scheme and to this day denies any role in electing Judge Karmeier,” Bob Clifford, attorney for the plaintiffs, said in an interview Tuesday. “Now they agree to pay a quarter of a billion dollars, and I think that speaks for itself.”
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Elected judges and judicial independence have always been an awkward fit. “Politicians are expected to be appropriately responsive to the preferences of their supporters,” as U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts has observed. By contrast, judges “must ‘observe the utmost fairness,’ striving to be ‘perfectly and completely independent.’”
Put simply, judges are supposed to put aside their political or partisan preferences and decide cases based on their understanding of what the law requires—even if it’s unpopular. That is a lot to ask of anyone—but election pressures can make that job even harder.
Thirty-eight states use elections for their state high courts. Across the country, these elections have become increasingly expensive and politicized. Today, one-third of all sitting justices on elected courts have run in a million-dollar election, as documented in a recent report by the Brennan Center for Justice and National Institute on Money in State Politics. The 2015-16 election cycle had a record number of big-money supreme court races.
Click here to read more from the ABA Journal.
In January our Supreme Court drew our congressional districts. In February the U.S. Supreme Court told the General Assembly that our court could do that. In March and April our Senate held hearings on how to design a citizens' independent districting commission so neither politicians nor courts would draw legislative districts. A compromise Senate Bill 22 was offered on May 22, which sailed through the subcommittees and was ready to be passed.
On June 12 a surprise rider was introduced which changed the structure of our appellate court system. All superior, commonwealth and Supreme Court justices would now be elected from districts designed by the citizens' commission. Appellate courts would no longer be judicial, they would be representative. The basic principle that, especially appellate courts, should not be political bodies was distorted.
The Founding Fathers designed the House of Lords and the appellate courts to be above the political fray. The rider to SB22 must be defeated. We must retain an objective, professional appellate court system.
Click here to read more from the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review.
Pennsylvania GOP leaders are calling on the Supreme Court to overturn a state court ruling that declared the state's congressional map an improper gerrymander, scuttling its congressional districts earlier this year in favor of Democrats.
State House Speaker Mike Turzai and Senate President Pro Tempore, the top Republican lawmakers in the state legislature, filed their appeal Thursday afternoon, marking the latest attempt to overturn the state court's decision after the Supreme Court denied two emergency requests to intervene earlier this year.
Republicans have argued that the state court did not give the legislature enough time to forge a compromise map with Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf after it ruled the map unconstitutional in January. When the two sides couldn't reach a compromise, the state Supreme Court redrew the map.
Click here to read more from The Hill.
(AP) After the Pennsylvania Supreme Court 's Democratic majority threw out the Republican-drawn map of congressional districts as an unconstitutional gerrymander, Republicans raised talk of impeaching Democratic justices.
Calls for impeachment even came from senior Republican Party officials.
That talk receded, but Republicans have brought forward another plan that could limit the lifespan of the court's Democratic majority: changing the state's constitution to elect appellate court judges in districts, rather than in statewide elections.
Whether to move the idea farther down the path of amending the constitution—and dramatically reorganize a separate branch of government—is before the state Legislature in the final days of June, as Democratic Gov. Tom Wolf and legislative leaders are trying to assemble a new fiscal-year budget.
It escaped nobody's attention that Republicans took a shot at remaking the court within months of the gerrymandering decision that had left them worried about how the court might rule in the future on a pending public school-funding case.
Click here to read more from the Chicago Tribune.
What you'll find
PMC press releases, statements, and news coverage of our work, in addition to the latest news on Pennsylvania's courts, judicial elections, ethics, discipline and more.
Pennsylvanians for Modern Courts is a statewide nonprofit, nonpartisan organization dedicated to ensuring that all Pennsylvanians can come to our courts with confidence that they will be heard by qualified, fair, and impartial judges
1500 John F. Kennedy Blvd., 2 Penn Center, Suite 1140, Philadelphia, PA 19102