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Two months after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast the legal system remains a tale of two courts: Federal courts reopened last week while Louisiana state courts struggle with disarray. “This is not a food or shelter issue, it is beyond FEMA’s ability to comprehend. We’re talking about destruction of the criminal justice system,” said Phyllis Mann, past president of the Louisiana Association of Criminal Defense Lawyers. By contrast, the federal courts along the gulf are back and running, admittedly in fits and starts, but judges in U.S. district court in New Orleans have returned to the old court to resume calendars. For both state and federal courts the surprising discovery was that the biggest stumbling block to gearing up was not court infrastructure as much as finding staff housing and a place to send their children to school. “We hadn’t focused on that but it turns out to be a major consideration,” said Chief Judge Carolyn Dineen King of the 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, from the court’s new temporary headquarters in Houston. After the Sept. 11, 2001, terror attacks, federal courts across the country developed contingency operation plans in case of a disaster. King said she learned quickly that the plans didn’t anticipate that employees would have to move and bring families with them, and also enroll children in school. The original plan called for moving the court to a rural air force base with unused space in Louisiana, but court staff had nowhere to live and no schools nearby, she said. For Mann, the state courts have been a far more harrowing experience. Mann, with a cadre of volunteers who often slept on the floor of her home or in her Alexandria, La., office, has spent the last two months tracking down the 8,500 prisoners hurriedly removed from flooded or dangerous jails and scattered to prisons across the South. Reuniting them with their lawyers has been a Herculean struggle because she estimates that the hurricane and flood wiped out half the state’s criminal defense bar. Many lawyers have moved away to get their kids in schools, while those who remained may have a demolished office, no equipment, soaked files and no way to find clients and resume work. Hundreds of prisoners who had either finished their terms just before the storm or faced misdemeanor charges such as public drinking or solicitation, were unable to post bond before the storm hit. Or for others who did put up bail, computers and phone lines died before they could be processed and released. Mann estimates that of the 8,500 moved out of town, 2,500 are in this position, jailed for two months on what might have been a one-night stay, unable to find their lawyers, get a court hearing or even locate family. Her organization has already filed four habeas petitions so far involving multiple prisoners, and she plans to file more. In Orleans Parish, the largest, 30 of the 39 public defenders have been laid off, she said. Funding for public defenders is not provided by the state. Each judicial district pays its own through collection of court costs, usually traffic tickets. “No tickets, no money,” Mann said. In Jefferson Parish, 38 public defenders had their pay cut in half, she said. Plenty of law firms around the country have offered help, but if you walk into a criminal court in Louisiana you have got to be a bar member in Louisiana, she said. Even filing of habeas petitions to release people has become a nightmare of logistics. Nonetheless, the Louisiana Supreme Court refused, by 4-3 vote, a petition on behalf of 40 detainees held past their release dates to designate one court in Baton Rouge to hear all habeas petitions. The suit asked that a representative judge from each parish be assigned to hear them, but to no avail. Now defendants are back to filing habeas petitions in each jurisdiction where they are housed, often with few functioning courtrooms, no mail for service and attorneys on both sides often unable reach the hearing, Mann said. Although the federal recovery has run more smoothly, there are heavy costs. Considerable staff time is spent on finding housing, schools and other assistance for each displaced employee working in the court away from home, according to King. Mary Schroeder, chief judge of the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which covers an earthquake-prone California and eight other states, said her visit to the Texas offices showed her how traumatic the disaster has been for the judges and staff. She plans to renew emergency preparedness training and ask district courts in the West to take into account uprooted families. Chief Judge Helen Berrigan of the Eastern District of Louisiana in New Orleans said that she was “unpacking with joy” in her old office in anticipation of reopening the federal court. Her first hearing scheduled was a civil suit involving alleged damage by a barge to a levee. On the criminal side, Berrigan suspended the speedy trial act for 90 days, and the court has pressed to process quickly previously sentenced defendants to free them from burdened local jails. In Baton Rouge, Chief Judge Ralph Tyson of the Middle District of Louisiana found his court receiving displaced court personnel and judges from other parts of the state. He hosted five district judges, magistrates, clerk staff, marshals and probation authorities. “It was cozy but it worked surprisingly smoothly,” Tyson said. They rewired attorney-client conference rooms for phones to serve as offices and worked out a schedule to share courtrooms. But the Louisiana Supreme Court remains closed until Nov. 25, counting the period of Aug. 29 to Nov. 25 as a legal holiday by court order. Helena Henderson, executive director of the New Orleans Bar Association, said that parts of the civil system began with fits and starts to operate. Some documents in a flooded court were sent by refrigerated truck to Chicago for preservation, she said. “There are judges living in hotels and on cruise ships,” she said. Henderson went back to her office with a National Guard escort to rescue files and a server full of documents. She walked up 12 flights of darkened stairs in 100 degree heat to water- and wind-ravaged rooms. “It was like a maze. The men called them Rambo runs” because there was still occasional shooting outside at the time, she said. “The courts were scattered to the winds,” she said. “Systems are overwhelmed.” Mann said that asking for volunteers isn’t that easy because you can’t find hotel rooms or rental cars. “Ultimately, it is going to take money, federal money, to put the system back together,” she said.

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