CLEVELAND, Ohio – I work in a profession in which open government and public access are sacrosanct. I’ve built a career on the conviction that freedom to openly observe the functions of government guarantees their integrity — that maximum transparency is always in the public interest. Period.
So, when I heard that the Cleveland Housing Court had chosen Zoom as its preferred digital platform for conducting eviction hearings without a plan for making those proceedings open to the public, I felt my hackles rise. And last week, when my colleague, Eric Heisig, reported that at least three tenants, who couldn’t access online hearings in their cases, had been slapped with eviction orders, I started mapping out a column that would call for the court to immediately begin posting Zoom links to the online dockets.
After a three-month coronavirus-induced moratorium on evictions, the housing court was poised for an avalanche of new filings. To ensure that magistrates weren’t giving cases short shrift, just to plow through a heavy caseload, it would be best to grant the public unqualified access to every eviction hearing. Right?
Well, maybe not. A conversation this week with Housing Court Judge W. Moná Scott opened my mind to the possibility that perhaps unfettered access isn’t always in the public interest. I almost can’t believe I typed that sentence, but bear with me.
Eviction, Scott said, is a deeply personal and painful event for the tenant who faces it. And eviction hearings have a way of, sometimes unfairly, airing one’s “dirty laundry” — their shame about living in poverty, their financial hardships and misfortune. Traditionally – that is, before COVID-19 changed everything about society – any stranger could wander into a courtroom and sit in on an eviction hearing, Scott acknowledged. But in a courtroom, many aspects of the environment can be controlled, and a judge can ensure that a hearing is conducted in such a way that protects the dignity of the people facing hardship.
By contrast, the necessity to host eviction hearings online during this pandemic creates an environment that’s ripe for abuse and cyber-bullying if members of the public are permitted to observe anonymously, Scott said. A nosy neighbor or a vindictive enemy could simply click the Zoom link on the docket to watch a tenant’s worst day unfold in court. An ill-intentioned observer could capture video from the hearing or screen-grabs that could easily be shared on social media to publicly shame the tenant. And in perhaps the worst-case scenario, easy access to the Zoom link could be an invitation to so-called “Zoom bombers,” internet trolls who disrupt online conferences, often by introducing racist, obscene or pornographic material to the session. Scott worries that those intrusions could be an emotional trigger for people who are survivors of trauma.
“I am always thinking ‘what if this were me?’” Scott said. “If I were on the other side, how would I want to be treated? Would I have an expectation of privacy in an eviction hearing? It’s one thing to have the media come in because we know the media would respect that privacy. But it’s another thing when people are sitting at home, bored and want to be entertained by people’s misery.”
Scott says she is willing to send Zoom links to any member of the public who wishes to sit in on a hearing, but she will “make them work to get it,” by requiring them to call the court and give their name and email address to an administrator. Even if that person shares the link with others, anyone who clicks it still will need to identify themselves before a court administrator will admit them to the hearing. That way, if a visitor violates Scott’s standards for decorum and decency in her virtual courtroom, she has an attendance record.
The judge says that hearings on her criminal docket are conducted on Facebook Live, completely in the public domain. But she contends that acting as a gatekeeper for observers of the eviction docket is within the limits of her judicial discretion — and is the right thing to do.
As committed as I am to the argument for unimpeded access to observing government activities, I am even more committed to “the right thing.” During the three years I spent reporting on poverty for cleveland.com’s special series A Greater Cleveland, I met many families who faced housing insecurity, some of whom have suffered the downward spiral in quality of life that an eviction can set into motion. I can’t dispute that Scott’s decision to, not so much limit, but control public access to eviction hearings online would protect those families from unnecessary harm. For caring about that so deeply, the judge should be commended.
I urge the court to more clearly tell members of the public how they can obtain links to observe eviction hearings. (That information is still absent from the court’s website.) And no one should ever be denied access.
But provided those expectations are met, I’m ok with the added layer of security if it means helping the court preserve a bit of dignity for those already facing one of life’s most painful experiences.
In the coming months, we can expect an unprecedented deluge of eviction filings in Cleveland, as the ongoing financial crisis eventually overwhelms the availability of federal rent assistance. I’m confident that, as the court’s caseload reaches its peak, Scott will ensure those hearings remain open to the public without becoming a public spectacle.
You can reach columnist Leila Atassi at email@example.com.