Courting the Courts: How Do You Approach a Judge about a Local Eviction Prevention Program?

By: Gale Schwartz, Associate Director of Policy and Programs, Housing Alliance of Pennsylvania
October 2023

Courting the Courts: How Do You Approach a Judge about a Local Eviction Prevention Program?

Landlord tenant disputes that lead to eviction have long seemed like a minor insular problem limited to the tenant, the landlord and the neighborhood judge hearing the case. But we now know, we were very wrong. We are seeing mounting evidence that individual incidents of eviction, when looked at en masse, are generating a cumulating effect that is causing lasting harm to families, businesses, schools and neighborhoods. We are now at an inflection point where we need to think differently about how we support both tenants and landlords struggling with rent payments and active in the court process. And a good place to start is with those neighborhood courts and with the neighborhood judge.

What are the Magisterial District Courts?

In Pennsylvania, most people have their first experience with the judicial system at the Magisterial District Court (MDC). It is where you go if you get a traffic ticket or cited for a minor criminal offense like public drunkenness. It is also where a landlord will file to evict a tenant. They are based in the neighborhoods and are meant to deal with the minor disputes that can arise in everyday life with more serious crimes and lawsuits being handled in the court of common pleas. There are over 500 MDCs across Pennsylvania located in small storefronts and offices in our communities. 

Who are the Magisterial District Judges?

Magisterial District Judges (MDJs) are elected positions, with 6-year terms without term limits. Because MDCs are a kind of minor court, those seeking to become MDJs do not need a legal background or experience prior to being elected. MDJs do have to pass a qualifying exam and participate in continuing education during their time serving as a judge. 

How do you get the conversation started?

I do not believe that there is a right way or wrong way to get the conversation started. You simply have to start. However, this conversation may be easier to start than most. MDJs are meant to be from the neighborhood and to have strong community connections. If you do not know the MDJ in your area, it is very possible you know somebody who does. 

Eviction is a problem everywhere, but the reality is some communities are experiencing it more than others. That means certain MDCs and MDJs are also experiencing it more than others. One approach that I have used in starting conversation with judges, clerks, and other needed local partners is by showing judges their burden compared to the neighboring MDCs using the interactive map of eviction filings by zip code. By showing the disparity in the crisis by courts it can help contextualize why the judge you are speaking with is so pivotal in establishing community services in their court that are seeking to find solutions that work for both tenant and landlord.

The questions that may come up

For many judges, partnering to create an eviction prevention program will be uncharted territory and they will understandably have questions. Below are some of the questions that have been posed to me by judges and talking points I have used.

  • “I thought these programs were to help tenants. As a judge I have to remain impartial, and it would be unfair for me to help the tenant and not the landlord.”
    • Eviction prevention programs are meant to help both the tenant and the landlord. We want to help both sides communicate with each other and come to an agreement that works for both.
    • Eviction prevention programs have been shown to help landlord recoup some or all of their financial losses while also helping the tenant.
    • Without an eviction prevention program landlords are not likely to collect the money judgement. Trans Union study found average eviction costs landlords $3500 and debtors have 17% success rate in collecting what is owed.[1]
  • “How will this impact the volume in my court? Especially, if cases are being continued?”
    • We recognize your resources are limited but we believe that that once the program gets up and running, we will be able to utilize strategies like submitting filings to withdraw the cases and settlements by agreements before the next court hearing.
    • We have heard from other judges where pilots take place that it is helpful to have the program partners (service organizations) in the court. The additional staff can help field basic process questions and provide general information, freeing up court staff to prioritize completing necessary court tasks and functions and help the hearings run smoother.

A few final thoughts

The MDC is a public institution, it is a bureaucracy, and has rules on how it is supposed to operate, and each court can interpret those rules ever so slightly differently. The onus will be on you to take the time to learn what the rules are and how the rules are put into action. And then when time is right with the spirit of collaboration and compromise, ask the judge “What is it that you need? What can be done to bridge the gaps between what my vision is for this program and what you are able to do?”

[1] The True Cost of an Eviction. My Smart Move. 14 September 2022 20 October 2023.