The Louisiana Supreme Court building on Royal Street in New Orleans. The statue of segregationist Edward White, a former Louisiana Supreme Court justice and Chief Justice of the U.S. Supreme Court was relocated inside Wednesday. (Photo by Jarvis DeBerry)
Concerned about evictions that are already taking place and fearing an overwhelming wave of evictions on the horizon, a collection of civil rights attorneys, fair housing advocates and disability-rights advocates has asked Louisiana Chief Justice Bernette Johnson to order lower courts to make reasonable accommodations for people who are more vulnerable to COVID-19.
In a letter dated July 1, a group that includes the advocacy director of the Louisiana ACLU and two Loyola law professors, asks Chief Justice Johnson, Attorney General Jeff Landry and the president of the Louisiana Justices of the Peace to “give official notice to every Judge, every Justice of the Peace and every Court in Louisiana that refusal to follow the law in the administration of their offices when dealing with unrepresented or represented parties with disabilities will be considered as a violation of the U.S. and Louisiana Constitutions, the Americans with Disabilities Act, and the Louisiana Code of Judicial Conduct.”
The July 1 letter is essentially a repeat of a June 8 letter because the group says it never received a response from its previous correspondence and because its members “continue to see egregious violations by some courts and Justices of the Peace, indicating a lack of knowledge or understanding of the law.”
A spokesperson for the Supreme Court did not return a message Monday asking if the chief justice plans to respond to the group’s request.
The state Supreme Court’s website lists 14 orders the court issued between March 16 and June 5 related to COVID-19. A May 15 order signed by Chief Justice Johnson lifts what had been a “prohibition on conducting in-person proceedings” and returns to those courts the authority “to conduct in-person proceedings on all matters.” However, the order also says: “All matters should continue to be conducted with the use of video and telephone conferencing whenever possible.”
But the July 1 letter to the chief justice cites the example of an eviction hearing in St. Helena Parish where a tenant “with kidney disease and hypertension (and) whose partner has heart failure, lung disease and hypertension” requested a remote hearing but was denied that accommodation by a justice of the peace.
In that case, a three-judge panel of the First Circuit Court of Appeal ruled in favor of the tenant after quoting Gov. John Bel Edwards’ executive order stating that “individuals who are at higher risk of severe illness from COVID-19 should stay at home.” Courts have been granted the authority to hold in-person hearings, the panel ruled, but “all matters should continue to be conducted with the use of video and telephone conferencing whenever possible.”
Breone DeDecker, program director for the Jane Place Neighborhood Sustainability Initiative, signed onto a May letter asking the state Supreme Court to ensure that courts that reopened would heed the Americans with Disabilities Act. But DeDecker said Monday that the reopening of courts, particularly those courts that handle evictions, has “put more families at risk.” Judges who force tenants to appear in crowded courtrooms are potentially “exposing them to a life threatening illness,” she said.
Maxwell Ciardullo, director of policy and communications at the Louisiana Fair Housing Action Center said even some of the state’s largest and best resourced court systems have done a poor job spacing people out or establishing other policies that keep people safe. “That leaves us incredibly worried,” he said, “that smaller jurisdictions will not put the needed protections for people with disabilities in place” unless they’re ordered to do so.
Trying to protect people from getting infected from COVID-19 might not seem like a disability-rights issue, but it is said Bill Quigley, a professor at the Loyola University New Orleans College of Law. Disability, he said in an email Monday, is “liberally defined to include anyone who has a physical or mental condition which substantially limits one or more major life activities.”
Quigley said almost a third of Louisianians were defined as having a disability before COVID-19 and that “an even more substantial percentage of our population are defined by the CDC as people who because of their age or physical condition as vulnerable to the virus and thus substantially limited in their major life activities.”
People shouldn’t have to choose between a court appearance and their health, Quigley said. “The courts cannot legally operate in a way that puts the safety of people at risk. Courts cannot force people to risk their lives or health by coming to court.”
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