Upholding NYC’s Right to Counsel Law for Tenants Must Be a Key Priority for the New Chief Judge
At the end of November the Commission on Judicial Nomination released its list of seven candidates for the Chief Judge vacancy on New York’s Court of Appeals. Governor Hochul must pick one to nominate in the next few weeks. Choosing a Chief Judge who will uphold NYC’s Right to Counsel Law for tenants must be a key priority.
The crisis unfolding in NYC Housing Courts can’t be overstated. It’s so deeply unjust and so absolutely outrageous it’s almost unbelievable. But it’s real and it’s devastating, and it is happening on Judge Cannataro’s watch. To date, more than 18,000 mostly Black and brown NYC tenants and their households are facing eviction alone when almost all of them have the right to an attorney. This crisis is entirely of the courts’ making.
NYC’s groundbreaking Right to Counsel (RTC) law has been a staggering success: evictions plummeted, landlords sued tenants less and the overwhelming majority of tenants who had Right to Counsel stayed in their home. All of this is now threatened because of the courts’ lack of vision and political will.
For decades, until RTC was passed in 2017, the courts facilitated hundreds of thousands of eviction cases in which one side was denied access to attorneys. It meant hundreds of thousands of tenants and their households were denied access to the full breadth of the law and their defenses. It meant thousands of tenants were sued who shouldn’t have been, thousands signed agreements against their own interests and thousands were evicted who otherwise wouldn’t have been. When RTC passed, all of this began to fundamentally change. Yet in the wake of the lifting of the COVID-related eviction protections earlier this year and the unprecedented labor shortage facing the RTC attorneys (and most sectors), the courts have not simply reverted back to their old way of operating, they’ve gone a step further by actively violating tenants right to counsel instead of using their power to slow down cases, uphold RTC and protect tenants’ rights. Recent data shows the courts have actually moved cases faster than in pre-pandemic times!
It does not have to be this way. The courts have the power and obligation to slow down cases until everyone has an attorney, give longer adjournments and reduce the volume of cases on the calendar each day. In the face of the city’s Right to Counsel law and its incredible success, it’s unfathomable that the court wouldn’t exhaust any and all options to make sure that tenants’ rights are protected when they are fighting for their homes.
Since Judge Cannataro became Acting Chief Judge he has not responded to our requests to meet or taken any responsibility for the crisis. Instead, he has unsuccessfully challenged our data and blamed the problem on the RTC attorneys. Under his watch, thousands of mostly poor, Black and brown tenants have been denied their rights and many will be evicted as a result. If Governor Hochul nominates him, she will unequivocally communicate to all of NYC tenants that she does not respect them, their rights, or their homes.
We urge Governor Hochul to make fixing the crisis in NYC’s Housing Court a key priority as she considers who should be the next Chief Judge.