Reopening Oklahoma’s courts must be done thoughtfully to avoid a public health disaster

COVID-19 Policy Analysis: As our nation confronts the COVID-19 pandemic, OK Policy will be analyzing state and federal policies that impact our state and its residents during this national health emergency. These posts reflect the most current information available at publication, and we will update or publish follow-ups as new information becomes available.

NOTE: OK Policy is not a state agency and we cannot assist in applying for state services or provide legal advice.

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In the two months since Gov. Stitt declared a public emergency, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has issued several orders to guide county courts. The most recent order allows many court activities to resume after May 15, and most cases filed since the start of the emergency on March 16 will be treated as if they were filed on May 16. 

When the courts open, thousands of eviction cases will be awaiting resolution. How Oklahoma deals with these cases safely will determine whether thousands of residents will become homeless. Lacking a statewide solution to address the issue, these questions will be mostly left up to the discretion of each county. 

In the interest of both public health and due process, Gov. Stitt should issue a statewide moratorium on all evictions for nonpayment of rent, at least through late August, and Congress must provide much more financial assistance — for rent and other basic needs — for the tens of thousands of Oklahomans who have lost income due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Oklahoma courts should plan to transition back to normal operations gradually and cautiously in order to avoid exacerbating the spread of the coronavirus or facilitating mass evictions.

Some evictions are suspended, but others will resume in mid-May

The federal Coronavirus Aid, Relief, and Economic Security Act (CARES) Act, which passed on March 27, suspended evictions at any property that receives federal financing, such as a mortgage or rental assistance vouchers. Evictions on properties covered by the CARES Act cannot be completed until August 23, 2020. In a positive development, the Oklahoma Supreme Court has required that any eviction case filed on or after March 27 to affirm the property is not covered by the CARES Act. 

However, there are no restrictions on evictions filed at properties that do not receive federal funding. Hearings for evictions filed before March 16 will likely be held starting May 18, and many of the more than 1,700 evictions filed since then will be scheduled to be heard starting in late May or early June. 

Gov. Stitt should suspend all evictions for the period covered by the CARES Act

National polling suggests that banning evictions during the state of emergency is very popular, supported by about 4 in 5 voters. About the same percentage also support programs that would provide rental assistance to tenants or replace lost income for landlords during the emergency.

Many states have imposed eviction moratoriums for the duration of the public emergency or longer. However, tens of thousands in Oklahoma and millions across the country will remain in precarious housing situations long after state emergency orders have been lifted. Gov. Stitt should issue a statewide moratorium on all evictions for the period covered by CARES Act, as he was urged to do by a coalition led by grassroots organizing group ACTION Tulsa.

Courts should gradually and cautiously transition back to normal activities, even if that means delays in some types of hearings

It is difficult to imagine a return to normal court operations while the Oklahoma Supreme Court has directed courts to keep the number of people in any room under 10. A single afternoon eviction docket in Tulsa or Oklahoma County often includes more than 100 defendants who fill the benches waiting for their case to be heard by the judge. Getting through old and newly filed cases at a reduced rate of daily hearings could take months.

One option courts may be considering are hearings by phone and video. This method would present a serious issue to due process for Oklahomans who lack consistent phone or internet access. As we saw in April, several counties did this after the courts were closed, which resulted in evictions simply by missing a phone call. 

However, the state and federal governments can chart another path that would render the backlog of eviction cases moot. Gov. Stitt can provide stability to tenants through an eviction moratorium that extends the protections of the CARES Act to all properties; Congress can do their part by passing much more financial assistance to ensure tenants can meet their basic needs while landlords are not left in the cold. Without action, thousands of Oklahomans face homelessness in a matter of days.

ABOUT THE AUTHOR

Ryan Gentzler joined OK Policy in January of 2016 as a policy analyst focusing on criminal justice issues, including sentencing, incarceration, court fines and fees, and pretrial detention. Open Justice Oklahoma grew out of Ryan’s groundbreaking analysis of court records, which was used to inform critical policy debates. A native Nebraskan, he holds a Master of Public Administration degree from the University of Oklahoma and a BA in Institutions and Policy from William Jewell College. He served as an OK Policy Research Fellow in 2014-2015.

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