The participants in the debate were familiar: the private attorney for the landlord versus the court-appointed attorney for the tenant. But this time, the setting was somewhat different.
John Sherman, a Georgetown University law professor and director of the D.C. Law Students and Courts Program, represented the tenant.
Sheldon Schuman, legal counsel for the area Property Management Association (PMA), represented the landlord.
There was no actual case to settle but the two attorneys, who usually appear before judges in the D.C. Landlord-Tenant Court, gave a command performance before nearly 100 property managers and contractors attending the monthly PMA meeting.
PMA is a private, nonprofit association made up of 220 property managers who control 300,000 residential units and nearly 60 millions square feet of commerical space in metropolitan Washington, said John Bachner, president of the association.
Following a few business announcements, the Sherman-Schuman debate began.
"The fun begins when the tenant comes down to court," Schuman said. "Under D.C. law the tenant can allege things wrong with the apartment."
Schuman contended that the landlord-tenant court system was unfair to landlords because it is "too slow, too costly and too cumbersome. It can take as long as three days to get a very simply matter settled."
Cases dragging on from six months to several years is not unheard of in more complex issues, he noted. "Sometimes they (tenants) can beat you out of three or four months rent."
The major problem, however, "is the time and the cost to settle the case," Schuman said. "There should be a separation between minor problems and major problems."
Schuman then yielded the floor to Sherman, an owlish-looking college professor who entoned a philosophy he said he presents to all of his students.
"Justice," he said, "is an incidental by-product of the (Superior Court) system."
Last year, he said, 107,701 landlord and tenant suits were filed in D.C. Superior Court. The suits, however, only involved about 30,000 individuals who landlords attempted to evict from several properties during the year, Sherman said.
According to figures provided by the court, 2,642 tenants were evicted, 678 jury were re quested and three jury trials were held.
Sherman said about 98 percent of all cases are settled out of the court.
Sherman agreed with Shuman that the court system is too slow and complicated.
"And the more complicated it gets the less fair it is."
In several cases, decisions made by the various agencies handling complaints, such as the Rental Accommodations Office and the court system, conflict, he said.
The problems have created numerous questions. "Hiw do you merge the Rental Accomodations Office with Landlord and Tenant Court? How do you get a jury trial in a month? How do you get a bench hearing in two weeks?" asked Sherman.
The overall problem, however, "is separating the legal problems from the social problems. I would like to see the creation of a comprehensive housing court in D.C."
Before the meeting, Sherman said he had agreed to the debate "to find out as much as I can about what landlords are thinking."