"The hardest cases are when there are no written leases."
Knox County General Sessions Judge Tony Stansberry
Every Tuesday in Knoxville’s Old Courthouse, the immediate fates of dozens are decided in evictions court. On one particular Tuesday, a man sits in a pew across the room from me praying with tears in his eyes. He’d arrived early for court in what I suspected was going to be a decision about whether he’d lose the place he calls home.
At 8 a.m., General Sessions Judge Tony Stansberry comes out of his chambers to greet me. Below is a lightly edited version of our interview.
MC: Thank you for meeting with me this early in the morning. I hope that I am not keeping you from preparing for court.
Honorable Judge Stansberry: Of course. I am happy to help. I always arrive to court this early. I like to gather my thoughts and get situated so I can begin presiding at 9 a.m. sharp. I try to respect everyone’s time because the day can get long.
MC: What is a normal week for you in Civil Court?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: Monday and Wednesday are designated Civil Court days for debt collection. A lot of these cases would be medical bills that are not paid for example. Tuesday would be reserved entirely for landlord, tenant, eviction cases.
MC: I have heard that you least like presiding over landlord, tenant, eviction cases. Why is that?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: It really has to do with my background. I was an Assistant District Attorney before I was appointed to the bench in 1995. I actually started the drug court in Knoxville. My experience and what kind of law I was driven to practice was criminal. Civil court can get messy at times.
MC: When you are presiding over eviction court, what makes it difficult or messy?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: I think the hardest cases are when there are no written leases. This primarily happens with family and friends. Whether they let their boyfriends sister or brother in law stay in the basement and they want to kick them out of the house. These are difficult cases to preside over because it comes down to character assignation essentially. Also, in family battles there is usually no representation if it makes it to court.
MC: What are your opinions on mediation? Are you pro-mediation?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: Yes, I am a big believer of mediation. There is Legal Aid and then also the University of Tennessee Law Student Legal Clinic helps clients. In my opinion there are no down sides to mediation. There is no cost to it and there is no harm to seeing if they can help you in some way even if it is help describe what is happening. During mediation, the agreement made is sent to the judge. What I have found is that mediation is great at finding the root problem of the issue and resolving it. If an agreement is made, we put it on the docket 3 or 4 months later to make sure it was resolved. If mediation is not working, then we wait to hear the contested docket later in the day. We hear cases with lawyers first because they have multiple clients to represent in a day. Sometimes this can mean if you do not have a lawyer that you can be here all day.
MC: What makes it difficult with landlord tenant cases where they are not related?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: Section 8 vouchers. What becomes an issue is when the Section 8 voucher forecloses based on various reasons like drugs, violence, or failure to complete the requirements they committed to complete in order to obtain the voucher. In order to get the voucher, you have to have very little income. Sometimes, they have no income at all. They would be able to get a voucher in this case by sometimes only completing a certain number of community service hours.
MC: Do you find that this happens frequently that they are revoked?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: It does not happen frequently but it does happen. There are also issues with being evicted from one place using a voucher to another. Sometimes the waiting list to use a Section 8 voucher at another facility that accepts them can have a very long list or a waiting period so that can be a difficult situation to be in as well.
MC: Is there a certain demographic of people that have their voucher foreclosed?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: There is really no set stereotype. Recently I heard a case regarding a grandmother. When she was sitting inside the courtroom you would never suspect anything because she seemed like a typical church going sweet grandmother. In reality, she heard her grandson was being bullied or some misunderstanding with the grandson and another kid on the bus. She walk to the bus stop and is seen swinging a knife around at the bus stop. Today with smart phones there were several pictures shown of the incident. She was charged with attempted murder. Grandmother looses her Section 8 housing voucher. This is an example but there are many like this. Obviously there are income demographics but no age range really stand out as having their vouchers foreclosed on more than others.
MC: Do you see repeat offenders in the courtroom?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: The court and sessions judges are aware that there are slumlords in Knoxville and who they are. This could be landlords that do not keep their units up to code or fix appliances. These factors are taken into consideration when deciding the case. However, there are still good landlords that have issues with keeping their units up to code or do not fix appliances. Maybe they have issues with flooding or mold.
MC: Do you see any trends in the cases you are hearing currently?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: We are currently hearing the case involving the UT dorm rooms. This has been tricky because the blame keeps being passed and how do you determine who is to blame in a way. UT blames the contractor who then blames the subcontractor and so on. The students were given one week to leave the dorms. Essentially the students were just caught in the wrong place at the wrong time.
MC: You mentioned that there was a number of repeat landlords, do you see repeat tenants?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: There are a small number of repeat tenants. Right now what comes to mind is the “Sovereign Citizens.” I hear from them frequently. There are around a dozen in this area. They do not believe in civil society essentially. For example, they do not believe that they should have a drivers license or believe in my jurisdiction as a judge.
MC: Is there any legislation that you believe is currently helping try to reconcile the eviction rates or tenants that are evicted and have no where to go?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: I have been following the Access to Justice Program that was passed by the Tennessee Supreme Court. This is rules and guidelines that ensure everyone has fair and equal access to justice and legal help.
MC: What do you think the community needs to do more of in order to help tenants or improve the system?
Honorable Judge Stansberry: We need a mental health hospital in East Tennessee. It is a tragedy that Lakeshore closed down. Most people that come into court for these type of issues deal with emotional issues, addiction, or need medication. Yes, there is Cherokee Health System that can help. However, the line to get a bed or attention is incredibly long. Social workers can help, but again sometimes the resources are not made available until it is too late. Mental health attention is something I would find as an important and significant step to aid the issue.