Our “justice” system is in complete disorder. Maybe not the justice system, composed only of 9 robes, that we read about and hear about in the media. That’s an open argument. But there is no arguing this: the justice system, as experienced every day by people in municipal courts, is fundamentally broken.
Municipal courts are our local courts that hear cases like evictions and debt collections, and whose dockets are swollen. Cases are processed more than they are adjudicated. These are courts that decide whether people lose their home, and neither law nor justice are anywhere to be seen.
Courts don’t let defendants talk. Courts don’t follow unambiguous state law and allow tenants to argue any defense, including the most common defense in contracts, prior breach. Courts don’t treat landlords and tenants the same – the form given to the landlords by courts may or may not comply with the Ohio Rules of Civil Procedure, but they almost always help the landlord sue the tenant for an undetermined amount of money. And if the tenant doesn’t respond in writing with a form that isn’t provided by the court, then the court will assume that any claim by the landlord is true, in a hearing that the tenant isn’t even notified about. The courts ignore the plain language of the lease if it benefits the tenant, even though the landlord drafts the lease. The courts ignore higher courts on clearly decided issues of law.
Maybe you think it can’t be that bad. Maybe I don’t know what I’m talking about. Admittedly, I only talk to a small fraction of the people losing their homes through the courts in 32 counties in Northwest Ohio, a tiny fraction of the municipal courts in our country.
But show me I’m wrong.
The fact you can’t is the whole problem – there is no real oversight, accountability or research about how our most common justice system actually works.
The typical form of oversight in our legal system – appealing the case to a higher court – is often completely unavailable in eviction cases, and is practically unavailable to most defendants without a lawyer. State Supreme Courts may provide some administrative oversight, but often don’t. Elections provide little accountability if there is little knowledge about what happens in court.
The modern form of oversight, collecting and analyzing data, is transforming other industires. However, it’s unavailable in our justice system when our tens of thousands municipal courts don’t coordinate their reporting processes.
If we knew the numbers, if we could actually tell what is happening in our municipal courts, then we could start fixing our municipal courts. We could see where the law is not followed and represent people in those courts. We could advise people about what actually happens in their municipal courts. The law could actually be something that informs people and is publicly known and enforced evenly – the fundamentals of a legal system, which almost sound naively idealistic to anybody with experience in our municipal courts.
So many people that I respect say that it would be simple if the courts all did the right thing, so we should wait for that. But in a country with so many municipal courts and a strong belief in local control, it’s just not feasible to expect all courts to do it right. What we can expect and should expect is that leaders in all sectors of the legal industry take the first steps in a collaborative affort to understand our everyday justice system.
We need open law. We need to understand how our most common justice system works. Open can be accomplished if we all work together.