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Lawmakers: People facing eviction should have legal counsel | READER COMMENTARY

Protesters walk on Fayette Street to City Hall during a protest and march by Peoples Power Assembly, Ujima Peoples Progress Party and B.R.A.N.C.H activist organizations against Baltimore Housing Authority's evictions against residents Sat., Oct. 24, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff)
Protesters walk on Fayette Street to City Hall during a protest and march by Peoples Power Assembly, Ujima Peoples Progress Party and B.R.A.N.C.H activist organizations against Baltimore Housing Authority's evictions against residents Sat., Oct. 24, 2020. (Karl Merton Ferron/Baltimore Sun Staff) (Karl Merton Ferron/The Baltimore Sun)

“Lawyers in criminal courts are necessities, not luxuries,” wrote Justice Hugo Black in Gideon v. Wainwright, the Supreme Court decision establishing a constitutional right to counsel in criminal cases.

We believe that the same can be said for housing court, where the landlord is almost always represented, but the tenant is not.

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Eviction has a crippling effect on families in any time but especially in the midst of a public health emergency. Attorney General Brian Frosh has dramatically outlined the “recurring nightmare” of an eviction notice (”Attorney General: Maryland eviction process ‘unfair to tenants,’” Dec. 11).

Families in our community who are renters are extremely vulnerable. The COVID-19 crisis has exacerbated the inequities in our landlord-tenant system. Establishing a right to counsel would be a substantial gain for working families.

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According to a recent study, tenants who are represented by legal counsel can avoid eviction in 92% of cases. In addition, counsel is estimated to save the state millions of dollars by preventing a displaced family’s reliance on a wide variety of public services.

The essential next step is to provide legal counsel for tenants threatened with eviction. That’s why we are introducing legislation in Annapolis next month to establish that basic protection.

Both parties, Justice Black declared, should stand “equal before the law.” Our legislation would enable them to do just that.

Shelly Hettleman, Wanika Fisher and Samuel I. “Sandy” Rosenberg

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The writers, all Democrats, represent, respectively, District 11 (Baltimore County) in the Maryland Senate and Districts 47B (Prince George’s County) and 41 (Baltimore) in the Maryland House of Delegates. Senator Hettleman and Delegate Fisher will be sponsoring legislation creating a right to counsel in eviction cases. Delegate Rosenberg will co-sponsor the House bill.

Add your voice: Respond to this piece or other Sun content by submitting your own letter.

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