Praxis and Paradox: Inside the Black Box of Eviction Court
In the American legal system, we typically conceive of legal disputes as governed by specific rules and procedures, resolved in a formalized court setting, with lawyers shepherding both parties through an adversarial process involving the introduction of evidence and burdens of proof. The often- highlighted exception to this understanding is the mass, assembly-line processing of cases, whether civil or criminal, in large, urban, lower-level courts. The gap left unfilled by either of these two narratives is how “court” functions for the average unrepresented litigant in smaller and nonurban jurisdictions across the United States.
For many tenants facing eviction, elements of the “typical” formal legal process are absent, resulting in an experience that only loosely resembles what is taught in law school. This Article is based on a first-of-its-kind interdisciplinary, multi-year, mixed-methods study of suburban and rural dispossessory (eviction) courts in Georgia that aims to contribute to the knowledge gap described above. Through detailed quantitative analysis of case files and qualitative data gleaned from court observation and stakeholder
interviews, and its unique focus on courts outside of a major city, it provides a clearer picture of how eviction court in such jurisdictions operates in practice and what resulting variations in process mean for case outcomes.
Ultimately, this Article demonstrates that while one set of laws may govern throughout the state, the process for applying and enforcing those laws is highly localized, dependent on the nature of place and the attitudes of the stakeholders involved. While smaller, lower-volume courts have fewer caseload pressures and appear to prioritize procedural justice, the process they conduct functions less like a traditional legal proceeding and more as a vehicle for rent collection. Paradoxically, elements typically associated with fair process—like the opportunity to respond to legal claims through filing an answer or the scheduling of a hearing on the merits—do not always manifest in substantively improved outcomes for tenants, given the structure of the underlying law. The Article concludes by reflecting on what these observations suggest about the limitations and effectiveness of different forms of legal assistance and how court processes, regardless of their locale and the people who operate within them, can maximize access to justice.