The idea doesn’t initially make a lot of sense, does it? If you struggle with the urge to keep a close eye on your eviction attorney, it may even be too much to bear. But it’s a really, really bad idea for landlords to appear at an eviction trial before the Justice of the Peace.
The Texas Legislature changed the rules that apply to Justice of the Peace Courts (where every Texas eviction must start) in late 2013. One of these changes gives the Justice of the Peace the right to “investigate” the case themselves. Here is how this new rule from the Texas Rules of Civil Procedure reads:
Rule 500.6 Judge to Develop Case
In order to develop the facts of the case, a judge may question a witness or party and may summon any person or party to appear as a witness when the judge considers it necessary to ensure a correct judgment and a speedy disposition.
This rule applies only to Texas Justices of the Peace. Justices of the Peace apply this rule quite differently. Some do not try to develop the case at all. Others will completely hijack the trial, asking their own questions and hardly letting the attorney speak at all.
Shortly after this rule was in place I learned my lesson. My client started an eviction case on his own, and I found myself in front a particularly bad Justice of the Peace. Knowing we would most likely lose in front of this Judge, I prepared my client by telling her we would likely have to appeal. I’m glad I did! The Judge completely ambushed us. I started my opening statement by explaining the parties had a verbal agreement that required the tenant to complete certain work around the property, and we were evicting the tenant because he had done nothing for the last several months other than sitting around the house all day watching TV and doing drugs. The Judge immediately tore into my client. “What specific work was he supposed to do?” “How often was he supposed to do this work?” What amount of work was sufficient for the month?” “What receipts did you provide him?” The Judge peppered my client with questions. He was asking his questions so quickly, my client couldn’t even answer all of them! Eventually my client gave the wrong answer, and then immediately corrected herself. This is what the Judge seized upon. The Judge concluded that, because my client corrected herself, even she did not understand the terms of the verbal lease agreement. He declared he had no way of knowing what the terms of the verbal lease agreement actually were. He then dismissed the case.
This judge obviously presides over a kangaroo court. This is just one of several similar outrageous experiences I have had with this Judge over the years and I learned a long time ago to always avoid him. And in case you’re wondering, I do not have a hostile relationship with this Judge. He would likely not recognize me if I walked into his court. This Judge simply values his own agenda and the axes he has to grind over justice. He’s a complete embarrassment to the judiciary. The handful of attorneys in his area who have eviction practices know to steer clear of him. But this experience illustrates the extreme to which this rule can be taken.
I have also attended a Justice of the Peace trial where my client clearly misunderstood the Judge’s question and when I tried to clarify my client’s response, the Judge shushed me. When the Justice of the Peace is directly asking a landlord questions, the eviction attorney has no right or ability to direct the landlord how to properly answer the question. After my client improperly answered the Judge’s question, I explained to my client what the Judge was actually asking. My client was furious that we could not simply go back to make the clarification. Unfortunately, the system simply does not work that way…. And in this case, the problem was a simple miscommunication; no monkey-business from the Judge. This was an otherwise great Judge who simply liked to exercise her right to develop the case more than the others.
If you really want take control over your eviction trial, give your eviction attorney control over the proceeding by not showing up. If you, the landlord, are not present, the Judge can only develop the case by asking your eviction attorney questions. You are in no way handicapped by not appearing at trial in a Justice of the Peace court. Your attorney has every right to stand in for you. In fact, your absence will increase your chances of a favorable outcome by reducing the risks created by the Judge developing the case.