On the scheduled day, I was the only landlord to show for our agreed eviction court field trip. My associates all said something came up. I suspect they got cold feet at the last minute.
I entered the first courtroom and quietly sat on one of the rear benches. I perched tensely on the edge of my seat just in case I might need to take flight, like a deer in the forest. I half expected to see eviction judges swooping down from the rafters to feast on the carcasses of landlords past—landlords who dared to bring cases against Chicago’s secret protected citizen class. That is, the “Tenants Who Want a Nice Place To Live But Prefer Not to Pay for It” group.
I noticed that judges and courtroom staff place a high premium on respecting the sanctity of the space and the office. If there’s one thing I learned that bright, sunny Monday morning it’s that the courtroom is the judge’s tiny kingdom (or queendom). If you fail to recognize that, you run the risk of having your ass—and your dignity—handed to you on a silver platter. Some of the cardinal rules of courtroom etiquette are as follows:
1.) DO NOT chew gum. It pisses judges off. I watched a grown woman get yelled at. The judge halted the trial and sent her out of the courtroom to find a trashcan in the hallway. Hilarious.
2.) DO NOT speak out of turn. If the judge or the opposing side is speaking, it’s usually best to remain respectfully silent. In fact, the best movie-style one liner of the day was when a judge yelled at a tenant, “If you keep interrupting me, it’s NOT gonna be good for you!”
3.) PLEASE, FOR THE LOVE OF PETE, DO NOT use your cell phone—not even for texting or surfing the net. I watched a judge give one man The Business for texting in court. He wasn’t even part of the trial in progress–he was just on the back benches like me. The judge yelled at him and made him bring his phone to her. This grown ass man had to walk from the back of the courtroom to the bench and hand his property to the judge. She put it in her drawer, slammed it and told him he could have it back after lunch. Exactly like 2nd grade
(Another observer would explain to me later that the same rules apply for reading a book or newspaper or anything else which makes it appear like you are not enthralled by your courtroom experience.) I glanced to my left then to my right. Then I carefully, quietly slid my own phone back in my pocket…
Once I got the rules down, I patted the two peanut butter sandwiches in my bag and settled in for a full day of watching and learning. I observed four different judges at work in separate courtrooms over the course of the day. What I discovered was the situation was not quite what I thought.
I saw that landlords were not getting the bum deals and heavy-handed verdicts I expected. I perceived that even though the ordinances and laws on paper tend to favor tenants, the cases I saw resulted in rulings with a sense of straight-down-the-middle, Solomon-said-split-the-baby fairness to both landlord and tenant. It was almost like the judges recognize that the laws are slanted and they make efforts to practice common sense in the application.
In the meantime, watch this helpful 17-minute video produced by the Lawyer’s Committee for Better Housing for the Cook Count Court’s channel titled “Going to Eviction Court.”
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