Eviction is a critical tool for landlords to manage their property by removing tenants who refuse to pay rent or create nuisances and safety hazards. The process allows landlords to remove tenants who deliberately withhold rent or damage property, so that they can aid tenants experiencing hardship and offer housing to good renters—a particularly important consideration during the coronavirus pandemic. But the California Judicial Council decided to take matters into its own hands and effectively banned all evictions by forbidding courts from issuing summons or entering default judgments.
Their measure, Emergency Rule 1, meant that landlords like Peggy Christensen, a retiree who depends on her rental income, could not take legal action against tenants who damaged the property, harassed other tenants, or refused to pay rent. It also meant that landlords like Peggy were forced to turn away considerate renters in need of housing. In making this rule, the Judicial Council seized policymaking power from the legislature and governor to block landlords’ access to the courts. Peggy and Peter Martin, another landlord, fought back with a lawsuit to rein in the Judicial Council’s illegal overreach, restore the rule of law, and protect the entire state’s critical rental housing industry.
During the unprecedented COVID-19 crisis, California’s Judicial Council issued an emergency rule that overrode statutory law and an emergency executive order to block virtually all evictions, including for tenants who violate their lease terms or deliberately withhold rent.
Landlords are as varied as their tenants. Some are companies with multiple rental properties. Others invest their personal savings in real estate as a small business or, like Peggy Christensen, to fund their retirement. Peggy is a retiree who owns an eight-unit apartment building in Mojave.
Peggy is typical of many landlords and operates on very thin margins. And, like all landlords, Peggy depends on her rental income for the survival of her business. Reliable rental income based on mutually agreed-upon lease terms is critical to sustain a healthy rental housing industry—a necessary component in addressing California’s affordable housing crisis.
Landlords understand that many people will be unable to pay rent due to shutdown-related job losses. Like Peggy, most work with cash-strapped tenants who might otherwise face eviction during the crisis. Furthermore, local eviction moratoria already forbid landlords in many locations from evicting tenants who are unable to pay rent due to the pandemic crisis or related government orders.
The Judicial Council’s Emergency Rule 1, however, went much further than these emergency orders. The rule indefinitely suspended landlords’ rights to take legal action against a tenant for virtually any reason. In doing so, it blocked landlords’ access to courts and violated a fundamental right of property owners throughout California.
The rule created a perverse incentive for all tenants—whether they face financial hardship or not—to refuse to pay their rent during the pandemic, making it even harder for landlords to assist tenants facing true hardship. The rule also forced landlords to prioritize rule-breaking, rent-withholding tenants over respectful rental applicants in need of housing.
Under the California Constitution, the Judicial Council had no authority to issue the rule in the first place. Under the basic principles of separation of powers, the judiciary cannot make policy or ignore the Legislature’s laws. Emergency Rule 1 did both.
Even during a crisis, the principles of constitutional government and the rule of law still apply. Represented free of charge by PLF, Peggy and Peter filed a lawsuit in Kern County Superior Court to rein in the Judicial Council’s illegal overreach, restore the rule of law, and allow all California landlords to defend their property rights through proper legal action. Following that lawsuit, the Judicial Council decided to rescind its rule, with the chief justice of California’s Supreme Court saying, “The judicial branch cannot usurp the responsibility of the other two branches on a long-term basis to deal with the myriad impacts of the pandemic.”