The Arkansas Supreme Court today issued an order requiring all new residential eviction proceedings from today through July 25 to certify that the eviction is not being sought on a dwelling covered by federal coronavirus relief legislation.

The order, unsigned and representing a majority of the seven-member court, notes that the Coronavirus Aid, Relief and Economic Security (CARES) Act declares a moratorium on evictions from federally subsidized rentals.

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Justices Shawn Womack and Rhonda Wood both issued dissenting opinions, though the order essentially extends no protection that didn’t already exist. Gov. Asa Hutchinson has declined to declare through his emergency powers to broaden eviction protection to purely private rentals, saying he believed most landlords were trying to work with tenants left jobless by the crisis.

Womack, a former Republican senator, wrote that the order “exceeds our constitutional role within the scope of separation of powers, it takes action driven by emotion and not by actual data, and it puts the court in a position of favoring one party over the other prior to the establishment of any facts.”

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He also called it a solution in search of a problem.

For the month of March and the first three weeks of April, there were 460 newly filed eviction cases in Arkansas in 2020. This is down from 632 cases during the same period in 2019, representing a 27% decrease in eviction filings. Presumably, the purpose of this order is to protect tenants from an onslaught of eviction suits during the COVID-19 crisis. While it could change in the future, the numbers clearly show that such a scenario is not playing out and that the opposite is actually true, with a dramatic decrease in the number of cases filed.

As a practical matter, filings have continued though many judges are not hearing the cases because of restrictions on in-person hearings. The state’s biggest circuit bench, in Pulaski County, has formally declared it’s not hearing the cases, except for Judge Tim Fox. Filings have continued and, as tenant advocates have noted, certain types of evictions can go forward on only a filing with the county clerk if a tenant doesn’t appear in court to object.

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Justice Wood said  she dissented because “(1) the action comes at a time when our state is relaxing restrictions, not imposing new ones, (2) litigants can already obtain relief from time deadlines, (3) the decision lacks consultation and input, and (4) extensions, if needed, are best handled on a case-by-case basis.”

The court today also issued an additional emergency order responding to the crisis.

That order suspends  the time requirements for filing under four parts of the civil procedures act and one district court rule from today until reinstated. This applies to all state courts and state court offices.

 

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