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Kinder, gentler Rent Court needed for poor


I spent a few hours this week watching Judge Robert Gerstung preside over the city's Rent Court and, frankly, he didn't seem so horrible.

Once, he snapped at a woman who had interrupted him.

"That's what I've been saying," said the woman.

"No, it isn't," said Gerstung, pointing his finger at her and raising his voice. "That's not what you've been saying. You keep saying, 'That's what I'm saying' right after I say it, and it's not what you've been saying at all."

Another time, Gerstung seemed exasperated with a tenant who expressed surprise that she owed more than $1,000 in back rent.

"I don't know anything about that," said the woman.

"The fact that you don't know something doesn't mean anything to me," said Gerstung with a loud and exaggerated sigh.

"Do you understand what I'm saying? When you come into court and say you don't know something, that's not evidence. Without evidence, there's nothing I can do for you."

Gerstung's tone often ranged from impatient to sarcastic to testy. Outside a courtroom, any one of those tones of voice would have been considered unacceptably rude, but judges often treat the people who appear before them with contempt.

All in all, though, Gerstung just seemed like a man doing his job. No more, no less.

So I'm afraid Gerstung and his superiors may be inclined to dismiss the complaints of members of the Baltimore United Housing Coalition as so much ill-informed, mindless rabble-rousing.

The group, a newly formed coalition of community activists, picketed in front of the Eastside District Court building on North Avenue yesterday, demanding that Gerstung be removed from the bench and investigated by the State Ethics Commission.

They accused Gerstung of hold ing poor and working-class tenants in contempt, of acting with a bias in favor of landlords, of giving tenants misleading or false information about their rights, pTC and of ignoring tenants' rights to safe and secure housing.

"The judge has a blatant disregard and disrespect for tenants," said Annie Chambers, of the Welfare Rights Organization, one of the members of the coalition.

"He is prejudiced against poor and working-class citizens. The laws favor the landlord anyway, but tenants do have rights within the law. But if I can't talk to you, if you won't listen, how are you going to deal with the situation?"

It must be said that I did not see anyone thrown onto the street, Tuesday. Tenants who could not meet their obligations generally were referred to a city agency for assistance. Nor did I detect any favoritism toward landlords other than that already written into the law.

And it also must be acknowledged that the majority of the tenants who appeared before Gerstung Tuesday did not have their act together.

They had little or no documentation to support their contentions. They seemed unaware of either their rights or obligations under the law. They seemed intimidated and confused by the whole proceeding. Many times, the judge's testiness was simply an attempt to speed things along.

As I say, Gerstung's superiors on the bench probably will find nothing horrendous in the judge's conduct or in his decisions.

But in fact, the activists have raised profoundly important questions about the role of Rent Court in this city.

What better place than a court for sorting out these issues? For dealing with people as individuals? For help them see the options available to them?

When I sat in Gerstung's court, the other day, I saw an indifferent shuffling of people, like pieces of paper, from one agency to another.

I didn't see compassion. I didn't see respect. I didn't see a judge who looked upon his role, and indeed, who looked upon the law itself, as a tool for helping people.

Members of the Baltimore United Housing Coalition believe Rent Court is too important an institution for it to behave like yet another soulless, faceless, passionless, heartless bureaucracy.

I agree with them.

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