Saturday, May 4, 2019
A bell rang. I recognized it immediately as an old handheld school bell. But I was sitting in a courtroom. It made no sense.
It was in one of the most depressing courtrooms in which I have practiced with my students—mortgage foreclosure diversion court. It is a huge courtroom in an upper floor of City Hall in Philadelphia, big enough to fit over 100 people threatened with losing their home to foreclosure at one time. They sit in rows of hard wooden chairs in the center and back of the courtroom, all facing forward, uncertain of what court will mean for them that day. Each of them are now identified as debtors. Foreclosure proceedings have already been filed against them. To one side of them sit reluctant attorneys for banks and other mortgage lenders, required by the court to be there and to consider deals that will allow the debtors to stay. On another side sit housing counselors, hoping to piece together deals for the debtors using the few resources that the debtors have and that the counselors can find from outside sources. Around the outside walls sit nonprofit law firms, offering help when they can. In the front is a judicial bench, which is particularly huge due to the size of the courtroom and which towers over litigants, and many desks for court staff. The judge will not come—there is little reason for debtors to think that a judge will intervene for them at this stage. Debtors know this, as their cases are often not resolved until they have come back to this court several different days over some months, asking each time for more of a chance to find a way to settle the debt. A judge will sign off if needed. Besides, few debtors have legal arguments that will work. On this day like others, there is constant chatter in this cavernous room as cases are processed—some people learning they’ll never be able to keep their home, others given a month or two to come up with other resources.
And then, the bell rang.
At a central table, the bell ringer smiled as she looked around. Some others smiled, too, knowing what that bell meant: a deal had been reached. Maybe the mortgage had been renegotiated or the debtor had been able to catch up on the delinquency. Somehow, a debtor would keep the home. Victory for all, unless the debtor falls behind again. A happy ending, perhaps, in a court that belongs more in a Dickens novel than 21st century Philadelphia and where victories are not as common as they should be. The bell ringer smiled and moved on to the next foreclosure case.
I was reminded of this experience as I watched a similar celebration on video at a fundraiser for our local center for independent living. These centers exist to support people who have disabilities that might require nursing home care without the support services these centers find for them that allow them to stay in their homes. Among other people with disabilities they serve are people in nursing homes who they help return to the community, finding them the homes and services they need to do so. Despite the person often not having the $5000-6500 it takes to physically move someone into the community, and despite a lack of affordable housing (particularly accessible affordable housing), center workers struggle and sometimes succeed in reintegrating these people into happier independent living situation in the community. And as the video showed, when they do, they walk the halls of the agency cheering and ringing a bell. It looks and sounds like the same bell. They celebrate what they have accomplished.
With my law students, I often want to foster such celebration and don't know how. We work on cases in our clinic and often see so much that is wrong, some of which students can help make right and some of which they can’t. We work with people with severe disabilities denied government disability benefits—perhaps students help them win them benefits, perhaps not. Student watch people being evicted from their homes that landlords manage to control despite keeping them in substandard conditions—perhaps students help get this landlord to fix up their property or help tenants leave on their own terms, or perhaps we watch the more common seemingly unfair and unjust outcomes of tenants losing their homes and being saddled with debt that will preclude them from renting elsewhere. Students draft documents for people sick with terminal diseases thinking through end of life decisions with students who know the documents will be used soon—perhaps we give these people peace of mind, and perhaps we get to see the documents in action.
There needs to be time to stop and recognize victories. Bells must be rung. It is easy to see that for each win, there are many losses. But we must hear the bells. The question is how?
As I sit with my students now after victories, I ask them to reflect on the victory. I have them think about what they did and how they impacted change. I have them think about their clients’ lives with and what would have happened without our representation. After our losses, we do the same, though losses need no marker—they seem to stick with us more easily. How can I make victories not only meaningful but joyous celebrations?
I have no bell. Perhaps I need one.