Organizations that represent low-income tenants and debtors in Nebraska courts asked the chief justice of the Nebraska Supreme Court on Thursday to halt eviction and debt collection court proceedings statewide.
The groups want Chief Justice Mike Heavican to “impose an immediate statewide moratorium on eviction and consumer … debt collection proceedings due to the COVID-19 public health emergency,” according to a press release sent by one of the organizations, Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Several states, cities and counties across the nation have suspended evictions because of the coronavirus. In Nebraska, the organizations are asking the Supreme Court to do so statewide for public health reasons.
State Court Administrator Corey Steel said Heavican is unlikely to issue any blanket orders. Steel said he and Heavican will bring together attorneys from Legal Aid and the Nebraska State Bar Association, whose clients include landlords, to discuss the issue and consider how they might proceed differently than taking eviction cases to court during this time.
More people joined the the eviction moratorium push on Friday. Twenty-nine organizations signed a letter to Omaha Mayor Jean Stothert, the Omaha City Council and the Douglas County Board.
“In light of the COVID-19 pandemic, and the economic hardship this will bring to our community and those across the state, we urge our leaders to take immediate action to prevent evictions for the duration of the emergency,” the letter said.
Steel said Thursday local courts have authority to say which types of hearings need to happen and which do not, although some types of cases have statutorily mandated timing.
It’s unclear whether the Supreme Court has the authority to issue the moratorium. The organizations say the Nebraska Constitution and state law give the chief justice the ability to do so under his broad authority to administer the courts, said Scott Mertz, managing attorney of the Housing Justice Project for Legal Aid of Nebraska.
Mertz said about 50 eviction cases were scheduled for Friday in Douglas County Court, where such cases are typically all held in one courtroom. That would bring together more than the 10-person limit recommended by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention and imposed by the Douglas County Health Department and Gov. Pete Ricketts, Mertz said.
The organizations say that “if eviction and debt collection cases proceed during this pandemic, people who should be social distancing or self-isolating will end up in courtrooms and courthouses in close proximity with numerous other people.”
Mertz said most people facing eviction are low-income people, a lot of whom are living paycheck to paycheck and, with school being out, are likely to have children at home right now.
Jury trials have been postponed in Douglas County District Court. Some other criminal court hearings are proceeding because they must.
“It’s not essential to have eviction hearings or collection hearings happen right now,” Mertz said. “We are looking at a very vulnerable population being made to come down to a not-safe space and being put at risk for a further spread of this virus. … The state can put a hold on this until it’s safe again to proceed with our general course of business.”
Six organizations joined Legal Aid of Nebraska in signing the request to the Supreme Court: the Nebraska College of Law Civil Clinic, the Creighton University School of Law Milton R. Abrahams Legal Clinic, Nebraska Appleseed, Family Housing Advisory Services, the Immigrant Legal Center and the Lincoln Commission on Human Rights.