A study conducted by a group of students from The University of Tulsa College of Law’s Terry West Civil Legal Clinic shows Tulsans living in economic disparity face a legal system weighted against them, with only two out of 1,395 tenants prevailing in eviction proceedings in January. Tulsa has one of the top eviction rates in the country. The ease of eviction filings combined with barriers to justice for tenants has contributed to the growing problem. “Demand on the eviction docket makes it impossible to meet the competing pressures of fairness and efficiency,” said Assistant Clinical Professor of Law Roni Amit.
In 2019, landlords initiated 14,315 evictions against residential tenants in Tulsa County. As of March 12, eviction filings in 2020 had reached roughly 2,936, more than 1,000 per month before the court shut down on March 16. The COVID-19 crisis has brought little relief to the city or state’s housing issues. While eviction proceedings were put on hold, eviction filings were not, resulting in 2,680 eviction filings between March 16 and May 22, with 976 of those in Tulsa County. As the courts reopen, this situation stands to exacerbate existing problems in the eviction process, raising the prospect of increased evictions. The access to justice barriers identified in the report have been heightened as a result of the social distancing measures put in place by the court.
Eviction proceedings resumed on June 1 — at a time of increased individual and public health implications when identifying the justice barriers that contribute to evictions is essential. Students from the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic observed the Tulsa County eviction docket multiple times for a roughly two-month period from January through March 13, 2020, the last day that the court was open. Their report includes a data analysis of the eviction docket for the month of January, identifying trends and additional areas of concern. The report highlights that most cases are resolved through hallway negotiations in which tenants may be unaware of their rights and confused about the procedures in which they often are negotiating with a landlord’s attorney — a role they may not fully understand as representing the other side.
On Tuesday, October 1, The University of Tulsa College of Law hosted a facility tour and a luncheon to mark the grand opening of the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic. This newest addition to TU Law’s clinical education program was made possible through a generous contribution from Sarkeys Foundation. Attendees at the clinic launch included Terry West; Kim Henry, executive director of Sarkeys Foundation and former first lady of the State of Oklahoma; Former Gov. Brad Henry; Justice Douglas L. Combs of the Oklahoma Supreme Court; TU President Gerard Clancy and Provost Janet Levit; Roni Amit, director of the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic; Mimi Marton, TU Law’s associate dean for experiential learning; and Pierre Robertson, president of TU Law’s Student Bar Association.
Public service law
The Terry West Civil Legal Clinic will play a vital role in TU Law’s experiential learning opportunities. Participating students will serve as counselors, advocates and problem-solvers for clients who face diverse legal issues related to housing, education, health care, veterans affairs more. It will be located across the street from the main TU Law building in newly renovated space inside the Boesche Legal Clinic.
The new clinic is named in honor of TU Law alumnus Terry West (JD ’66), a distinguished Oklahoma litigator and the senior partner of The West Law Firm. “I am very pleased and honored to be associated with this new civil legal clinic,” West said. “I believe it addresses a need that has been prevalent for too long. More importantly, I am hopeful that this work will encourage many of our new lawyers to consider a career in public service law. That would be the biggest achievement of the new program.”
Inaugural director: access-to-justice and human rights expert
The Terry West Civil Legal Clinic’s inaugural director is Roni Amit, an international access-to-justice and human rights expert. Amit’s scholarship focuses on rights protection, administrative processes and the efficacy of public interest litigation. She has been extensively involved in research and advocacy in the areas of access to justice and human rights in the United States, Israel and South Africa.
“For the last two months,” Amit remarked, “I have been meeting with Tulsa’s dynamic social justice community, building on the connections forged by TU Law. These discussions have highlighted what to me are global issues around access to justice for underserved communities; specifically, the importance of understanding at the local level the role of the law in the lives of the marginalized and the recognition that the law alone is not enough.
“I am excited to work with Tulsa’s social justice and legal community to advocate for the rights of Tulsans lacking legal representation and a voice. I am grateful to Terry West and Sarkeys Foundation for providing the opportunity to develop a clinic that can serve these individuals and engage in advocacy around the broader structural dynamics driving these needs while allowing students to gain first-hand experience in using the law to advance social justice.”
“This is an exciting time for Sarkeys, The University of Tulsa College of Law and the Tulsa community,” said Kim Henry, executive director of Sarkeys Foundation. “The Board of Trustees of Sarkeys Foundation and I are very excited to be a partner on this endeavor with TU Law, which will help many Oklahomans in need access the legal system through the Terry West Civil Law Clinic. And we are proud to welcome Roni Amit to Oklahoma to run this new clinic.”
TU Law Dean Lyn Entzeroth underscored the importance of the new clinic on the quality of the education students will receive. “The University of Tulsa College of Law seeks in every way possible to ensure our students receive an education that prepares them for personally meaningful and socially impactful careers. Our clinical education program is critical to achieving that mission,” noted Entzeroth.
“My colleagues and I are deeply grateful to Terry West, an immensely accomplished TU Law graduate, and Sarkeys Foundation for embracing our commitment to high-level experiential learning through the creation of the Terry West Civil Legal Clinic. This unique clinic will allow our students to take legal theory and put it into practice in a clinical setting where they will have the mentorship, support and instruction of a clinical law professor who can guide them through the substantive, procedural, practical and ethical issues that lawyers face every day.”
If you are considering a career as a lawyer, TU Law’s clinical education program — ranked #74 in the United States (U.S. News & World Report — Best Law Schools 2020) — can give you the experiential training you require to excel.