Housing Law Essay 136 Harv. L. Rev. F. 288

Interrogating Dominion: On Political Theology and Summary Process Eviction in Connecticut


The Bible, the Greeks: What is the nature of these texts’ openness to the whole world? On the one hand, for [Emmanuel] Levinas, they are available to the whole world; on the other hand, they are the whole world. The whole world is in these texts and the refusal of these texts, the failure to enter into them is also a failure to enter into the world, to naturalize oneself — as it were — outside of the natural, to become a world-forming world citizen.

Fred Moten1


An eviction, the legalized removal of a tenant from their home,2 is a particular node in a complex web of legal, economic, and other social arrangements. It is a process that contains a few key ingredients, including a property, a tenant, a landlord, a court, and a corpus of governing statutes and case law. However, absent an eviction’s legal framework and justification, expelling a tenant from their home might more closely resemble ouster, theft, trespassing, or kidnapping; the law is what creates, defines, and empowers the eviction process as legitimate and unique according to its own logic and that of its legislators, courts, and the police they mobilize. Put differently, an eviction is made possible by laws and legal gaps, and underneath this legal tapestry is a thought world, a mix of different, interacting assumptions that think and feel it into existence. Deeper than concerns about practicality, efficiency, and abstract notions of fairness, these assumptions are derived from and effectuate principles that attend to existential priorities — to the essence of personhood, its fundamental interests, what governs and defines it, and what is necessary to protect it (and those interests).

This Essay seeks to illuminate and interrogate some of these priorities and principles as they reveal themselves in the law and its regime. Specifically, I argue that the sociopolitical order of the United States, as incarnate in Connecticut eviction statutes, maintains and arises from a set of logics that constitute a discourse of veneration and metaphysical authority — in other words, a kind of theological frame. This is a kind of discourse that goes beyond that of utilitarianism, empiricism, or rationality; as this Essay will explore, this is a discourse that attends to a higher power, not (only) as some deity or a means of consolidating material resources, but as that by which the self and others might be known at all. Indeed, knowing and recognition — of personhood, of “rights,” of a people’s way of being — are not universal or inevitable, but rather sites and stakes of power struggles, which is to say of coercion and resistance; what I’m interested in here are what (that is, who) wins and why, along with the veiled assumptions that attend to those victories. In particular, this Essay seeks to critically assess some of these contestations as they relate to deeply rooted structures of belief about the source and nature of authority and these structures’ relationship to the law in the United States. This, an engagement with our existential priorities, is what Paul Tillich argues is the essence of theological discourse:

The object of theology is what concerns us ultimately. Only those propositions are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of ultimate concern for us. . . .

. . . .

. . . Our ultimate concern is that which determines our being or not-being. Only those statements are theological which deal with their object in so far as it can become a matter of being or not-being for us.3

Using Tillich’s framework as a point of departure (that is, a theological lens), this Essay seeks to uncover some of the contours of the “ultimate concern” gestured toward in and as the sociopolitical order of the United States. This concern implicates matters and logics of being and “the proper”; as Tillich explains, these are, among other things, logics of faith. These contours, I argue, are fundamentally set against the Black and the Native, serve capital, and simultaneously establish and are cultivated by the state.

Although this Essay focuses on these dynamics as they reveal themselves in Connecticut’s eviction statutes, these statutes are reflective of an originating, more generalized national ethos. Here, I am interested in theorizing the meaning of the eviction as a phenomenon that implicates a certain theological framework at work in the nation and this framework’s relationship to the law, using Connecticut as a kind of case study. I therefore proceed from the assumption — and, at points, demonstrate — that the Connecticut legal apparatus is rooted in national priorities, legal principles, and assumptions about the nature of government and what constitutes a proper relationship to land. While the details of any state’s eviction processes and laws have their own specific histories and characteristics, the respective legal histories of the states and the federal government are deeply intertwined, and the authority of each arises from this braiding. Put differently, Connecticut is but one participant in the nation’s theological regime, its eviction statutes are but one example of this, and these statutes — with all of their state-specific potential for harm — are made possible by a national legal-ideological scaffold. My particular focus on Connecticut in this Essay is largely inspired by my experiences as a housing attorney in Connecticut. This Essay might therefore be understood as my attempt to make sense of how the law enables the eviction and to decipher the roots of a collective consciousness that can accommodate the devastation of this displacement — a horror that I witness firsthand and struggle to mitigate in my work. As I have seen, and as will be explored later, this is a kind of chaos that threatens working-class, Black, and/or brown tenants in particular.

This Essay will proceed in four main parts. First, I offer a critical reading of a 2016 article by then-attorney, now–Connecticut Housing Court Judge Cirello4 that compares New Testament depictions of the crucifixion of Jesus of Nazareth to jury trials in the United States. In the State of Connecticut, housing courts serve as the first forum of contact between a tenant and the state in most issues related to their housing. In particular, they preside over eviction proceedings and apply the eviction statutes of interest in this Essay. Connecticut Housing Court judges interpret these statutes and hand down judgments according to those interpretations; in other words, they serve as the finders of fact and law in eviction cases and ultimately decide when a tenant must leave their home.5 Judge Cirello is one such housing court judge,6 and, as such, he wields an extraordinary amount of power over land, homes, and their residents according to the principles in and around the law, functioning as a vector of the kind of state power of concern here. This is to say that, within the jurisdiction of his court, his interpretations of testimony and law, the legacies of thought that inform such interpretations, and state power collaborate to rework space itself and who has the right to it. Although his article was published during his time as a trial lawyer and five years before he was appointed to the bench,7 I argue that Judge Cirello’s writing reveals subtle discursive and ideological tenets that guide such a reworking. More specifically, his article fortuitously provides a useful entry point into this Essay’s meditations on the connections between theology and state power and, for the United States, each’s veiled mechanisms and presuppositions as they relate to anti-Blackness. The connections between theological discourse and the law are the main focus of this Essay, so Judge Cirello, especially as a jurist and now-arbiter of Connecticut landlord-tenant law, provides an apt introduction to and frame for the inquiry that will follow, particularly given his explicit engagement of some of the intersections between Christian scripture and our legal frameworks. Across Parts I and II, I thus explore how the assumptions embedded in his article exemplify some of the ideological underpinnings of the country and the forms of legality it employs.

Second, engaging the work of Professors J. Kameron Carter and Adam Kotsko, I apply the concept of political theology to Judge Cirello’s reading and to landmark property law case Johnson v. M’Intosh,8 arguing (1) that both are rooted in a shared, if implicit, political theology of the state and its sociopolitical order as ultimate and legitimate, and (2) that the latter, Johnson v. M’Intosh, demonstrates that this claim to legitimacy is made possible through anti-Indigeneity.

Third, elaborating on the prior section, I examine housing law — summary process statutes in particular — in Connecticut as an outgrowth of this theological discourse of the United States’ sociopolitical regime, paying close attention to its anti-Indigenous, anti-Black, and neoliberal features, especially the ways in which it enforces a distorted relationship to the land.

Finally, I briefly offer and explicate two examples of alternative discourses that point toward different ways of being and of relating to the land and one another, against and within empire: the LANDBACK movement and Professor Ruth Wilson Gilmore’s concept of “abolition geography.”9

  1. ^ Fred Moten, The Universal Machine 11 (2018).

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  2. ^ Eviction, Black’s Law Dictionary (11th ed. 2019).

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  3. ^ 1 Paul Tillich, Systematic Theology 12, 14 (1951) (emphases omitted).

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  4. ^ John Cirello, Opinion, Jury Trials: Democracy? Or Buck-Passing?, New Haven Indep. (Feb. 23, 2016, 8:43 AM), https://www.newhavenindependent.org/article/jury_trials_democracy_or_buck-passing [https://perma.cc/5ZH3-XCRN].

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  5. ^ See Conn. Gen. Stat. Ann. §§ 47a-23 to 47a-26d (West 2017).

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  6. ^ Superior Court Judges, State of Conn. Jud. Branch, https://www.jud.ct.gov/judsearch/judsup.asp [https://perma.cc/YW6F-CR2N].

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  7. ^ See Press Release, Off. of Governor Ned Lamont, Governor Lamont Nominates 15 Connecticut Residents to Fill Vacancies on the Superior Court (Feb. 17, 2021), https://portal.ct.gov/Office-of-the-Governor/News/Press-Releases/2021/02-2021/Governor-Lamont-Nominates-15-Connecticut-Residents-To-Fill-Vacancies-on-the-Superior-Court [https://perma.cc/283J-FW67].

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  8. ^ 21 U.S. (8 Wheat.) 543 (1823).

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  9. ^ See Ruth Wilson Gilmore, Abolition Geography and the Problem of Innocence, in Futures of Black Radicalism 225 (Gaye Theresa Johnson & Alex Lubin eds., 2017).

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