Las Vegas Justice of the Peace Diana Sullivan is in an unenviable position for the only judge on her court seeking re-election. With hundreds of thousands of Southern Nevadans potentially facing eviction, she’s speaking out against the proposed rules for a program that gave legislative authority to the courts to delay evictions pending mediation.
Sullivan is president of the Nevada Judges of Limited Jurisdiction, an organization of justices of the peace throughout the state. The title renders her the voice of the judges as they speak up in opposition to the mediation program that has fallen in their laps.
“Well, most of our courts believe their caseload and their community does not need this,” she said, pointing out the strain the program could place not only on Clark County, but on rural counties that lack government resources.
The program would give tenants at least a 30-day reprieve from eviction while mediation takes place.
Sullivan and LV Justice Court Chief Judge Suzan Baucum told the Nevada Supreme Court the program, which seeks to keep non-paying tenants in their homes and off the streets pending the distribution of some $70 million in pandemic rental assistance, will only exacerbate the court’s ability to handle an expected flood of eviction efforts once moratoriums expire.
Sullivan says mandatory mediation creates “…bias toward parties based on socioeconomic status.”
In other words, she fears the mediation forces judges to accommodate tenants over landlords.
“We’re looking at the judicial code of conduct,” she says. “We don’t want to be policy makers.”
“… we have no interest in using the judiciary as a political activist group or policy maker,” Baucum wrote to the Court. “We believe the Las Vegas Justice Court has acted responsibly and ethically in the face of the financial hardships caused by the COVID-19 pandemic.“
“If enacted, the rule’s purpose and effect will contravene the speedy determination of nonpayment evictions upon their merits in favor of mediation that appears to promote, at least in part, an extrajudicial policy of providing access to rental assistance,” Sullivan wrote.
But Baucum, who is also opposed to the mandated mediation, says the court’s role is “educating and assisting litigants with respect to rental assistance now, when it is needed, rather than delaying such assistance until January.”
A report from the Guinn Center, which collaborated with the COVID-19 Eviction Defense Project, projects by the end of the year some 181,966 Nevada households will have faced eviction. That equates to roughly 418,523 individuals.
“I don’t want it to sound like we’re heartless judges,” Sullivan told the Current. “If you look at the Canons they tell us all over the place we need to adjudicate these cases according to the law.”
Sullivan noted the court already has voluntary mediation programs that allow tenants to work out a repayment plan with the landlord.
But what of the thousands of Nevadans who, through no fault of their own, have no resources with which to pay rent? Now, of all times, isn’t extraordinary relief in order?
Sullivan says no.
“I’m not disagreeing with you philosophically,” she says. “Once you start making policy from the bench you could violate the judicial canons.”
Apartment owners agree.
“A mandatory program, aimed at what we perceive is the sole benefit of the tenant, seems inconsistent with the commission’s mission, which recognizes that justice should be the same in substance and availability without regard to economic status,” lobbyist Mackenzie Warren, who represents the Nevada Apartment Association, testified to the Supreme Court’s Access to Justice Commission last month.
Eviction moratoriums are facing legal challenges across the U.S., including the freeze on evictions issued by the Centers for Disease Control.
The National Apartment Association joined a lawsuit arguing the federal government lacks authority to waive state laws and is encroaching on personal property rights.
The suit alleges the CDC order irreparably harms landlords who rely on rent payments to pay loans and other bills.
Sullivan says the mandated mediation program differs from the foreclosure mediation program established when Nevada was Ground Zero of a crisis that saw close to 7 million Americans lose their homes, according to Realty Trac, an industry analyst.
“The whole entire program was administered by the Nevada Supreme Court by its resources and such,” Sullivan says. “Even though it appears to be akin to foreclosure mediation, it’s being implemented through our court rather than the Supreme Court.”
Baucum, in her letter to the Supreme Court, cited projections of some 100,000 evictions to be processed in Clark County next year.
“… previous programs mandating such mediation by our court have proven unsuccessful, forcing us to abandon them for a more successful voluntary mediation approach.”
Baucum says LV Justice Court launched its own voluntary mediation program Sept. 1. Current data on the results were not available.
“Southern Nevada landlords have been more successful in establishing payment arrangements than Northern Nevada landlords,” says Susy Vasquez of the Nevada Apartment Association. “We have provided information to our members regarding the development of pre-eviction mediation programs through Clark County’s Neighborhood Justice Center and the City of Spark’s program Northern Nevada COVID Eviction Prevention Program.”
“The Las Vegas Justice Court knows better than anyone how to handle the volume of summary eviction cases,” Baucum wrote to the Nevada Supreme Court. “In the past five years we have averaged over 30,000 eviction cases a year.”
“Landlords are not in the business of evicting residents. We have and will continue to support the Governor’s ‘We Are In This Together’ statement because we understand many of our residents were put in situations no one would ever ask to be in,” says Vasquez of the Apartment Association. “We hope the Supreme Court takes into account a few issues that need to be addressed prior to finalizing the program and will look to local courts for further direction on implementation.”
Note: The original version of this story included incorrect data. The Current regrets the error.