IJ’s Sixth Circuit Win Paves the Way for Greater Access to the Courts
When IJ sued Shelby County for creating an Environmental Court that stripped people of their Memphis homes without due process, it was a courageous uphill battle from day one.
For IJ clients Sarah Hohenberg and Joseph Hanson, the Environmental Court was a nightmare. Like the protagonist in Kafka’s famous novel, The Trial, Sarah and Joseph found themselves in front of a shadowy tribunal with none of the safeguards or processes of a real court. The tribunal has no legitimate evidence, and its subjects cannot obtain even basic information about their own case. Yet it has the power to ruin lives, and left both Sarah and Joseph homeless and jailed Joseph over bogus housing code violations. Our case on their behalf presents a question Kafka might also have asked: “What good are our constitutional rights if we cannot enforce them?”
Federal courts are often squeamish about touching constitutional issues to begin with. And faced with scrutinizing other courts and other judges, they often reach deep into their bag of procedural tricks looking for a way to dismiss the case. So it was no surprise when the federal court in Memphis threw its weight behind a pernicious doctrine called Rooker-Feldman, a doctrine meant to prevent relitigation of state court cases in federal court—but used in practice to throw out legitimate due process claims, including those at the heart of our case.
Undeterred, IJ challenged that decision. And we won! In a recent ruling, the 6th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals recognized that this esoteric doctrine is completely inappropriate when IJ is challenging not the rulings of the Environmental Court but rather the very existence of the court itself—a much more fundamental and serious charge. As a result, IJ’s lawsuit can move forward.
This is a victory worth savoring. It takes nerve to sue courts and judges. When IJ successfully sued the judicial administration of the 1st Judicial District behind Philadelphia’s forfeiture machine, it was astonishing. Judges and court administrators facing constitutional scrutiny, not to mention depositions, must have been stunned. But they should not have been. We do not have secret courts in the United States, and the decision makers in Shelby County must also be held to account. After three years of fighting for our clients, we can finally shed light on the Environmental Court’s machinations through the discovery process, which now begins in earnest.
IJ’s persistence in Memphis breathes life into constitutional rights that are too easily thrown out by judges who are reluctant to take those rights seriously. There is simply too much at stake not to give people like Sarah and Joseph their day in court. When I called Sarah to share the news that our case was back in action, I was humbled and inspired by her response. She said that this win gives her the courage to keep fighting—and together we will.
Rob Peccola is IJ’s special counsel for litigation and development.
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