The following is a reflection based on my experience observing a Zoom hearing in housing court. Attending this hearing was part of an assignment for my clinic, the COVID-19 Relief Housing Clinic. The case I observed is not that of a client of our firm, but simply that of a litigant who virtually appeared in Zoom court that morning.
When I watch courtroom scenes on television and in movies, I am captivated by the persuasive oration, surprise evidence, and yes, the juicy drama. Superficially, attending a status hearing in Housing Court via Zoom was not so different from watching a televised courtroom experience. After all, I opened up my laptop and sat down at my desk to watch the scenes unfold through my screen. But the experience was nothing like watching a media portrayal of a courtroom drama. Because this wasn’t Netflix, and the spectacle wasn’t written with the sole function of my entertainment. That morning, I left feeling the opposite of entertained. It’s a lot less fun when the characters aren’t just reciting their scripts on a stage. It’s hard to find enjoyment in the unfolding of real problems of real people, especially when you can sense that there may not be a happy ending.
In my eyes, the protagonist of today’s narrative was the defendant tenant (let’s call her J), setting forth her case for numerous civil damages against her landlord, C. Particularly, she was experiencing various issues with heat, both in a bedroom and with her oven. This made me remember my own apartment last winter, when the heat was stuck at 64 degrees for less than a day. I was angry, less so because the cold was intolerable, and more so because I feel I have an entrenched right to this utility at all times.
J was situated in her apartment, wearing what looked like a bathrobe. She had attended the hearing after getting three hours of sleep after her overnight shift at work. She looked stressed and overwhelmed. It was like the frustration I feel when I have to stay up late for RA duty, but still have an 8 am class the next day.
She was chastised by the Judge for speaking over opposing counsel, G, because she seemed to recall a different version of the facts than those being presented. She was intimidated and confused when G several times asked whether she “wanted to keep this case open for three years or file in small claims” in an attempt to get her to close the case. Hearing this, I recalled being yelled at by airport security in India for not following their rules and procedures, not fully understanding their words but knowing that I had meant no harm.
She tried bringing up that she was having issues with snow and trash removal, too, but was shut down because these matters were not relevant to the matter at hand. It’s like that feeling of being on hold with technical support for hours, only to have the first person who picks up tell you sorry, but his department doesn’t deal with the issue you’re having. In the end, J was told by the Judge that “the parties have lots of choices” and that he hoped both parties would solve the dispute by the next status hearing in March. But did J really have many choices here? I didn’t think so.
Surely, this whole experience can be written from the eyes of someone who saw G as the main character, but I cannot say that I personally did. I do recognize that perhaps J’s truth was not the whole truth. Perhaps G even had some solid evidence to counter some of J’s allegations. But with the power dynamics in the courtroom today, I empathized with J. G was representing her landlord client, C, who conveniently got to remain a blank square on Zoom for the entirety of the hearing; perhaps I would have felt more connected to C if I had been able to see a human there. G had the privilege of being referred to by the Judge as “one of this court’s finest attorneys” before the hearing even began. G had the privilege of the Judge stating that he trusted her as an “esteemed officer of the court.” G had the privilege of chatting lightheartedly with the Judge at the very end of the hearing, when he asked her if her Zoom background was Harvard Law School’s Langdell Hall. To be clear, I didn’t at all feel the Judge was partial; in fact, I thought he was very compassionate and reasonable. To be fair, he also scolded G when she spoke out of turn. Yet, overall, it was not lost on me that either by virtue of her place in this structural hierarchy or by her rapport with the Judge, G had the upper hand today, leaving J an underdog from the start.
When the hearing came to a close, I took a deep sigh and shut my laptop lid. I left the hearing feeling the way I do when I finish watching a sad movie: somber, unfulfilled, and wistful. The only difference is, I know that characters in film and television are a figment of their creators’ minds. How I wish the power imbalance I witnessed today could simply be a figment of my imagination, too. Because something in my gut tells me that J isn’t getting a happy ending here, and this is isn’t just a television drama. It’s her real life.
Roma Gujarathi is a second-year student at BC Law. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.