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With New Orleans’ electricity expected to be out for at least a month, appeals court judges decided Friday to relocate to the Bob Casey U.S. Courthouse in Houston for about two to three months, said Carolyn Dineen King, chief judge of the 5th Circuit. “And then if everything comes together as we hope it will, we will move to Baton Rouge and that will be for an indefinite period,” said King, adding that a move to Louisiana’s capital will give the court’s approximately 200 employees a chance to deal with their property issues in New Orleans. “What will determine that [moving back to New Orleans] is the condition of our building, which we know very little about today.” One three-judge panel held arguments in three insurance appeals and a criminal case last week in Austin’s federal courthouse, as all of the judges on the panel lived in Austin or within driving distance of the city, King said. A panel is scheduled to hear arguments this week in Houston’s Bob Casey U.S. District Courthouse. Judge Patrick Higginbotham said he and the members of his panel figured last week that there was no reason why they couldn’t continue to hear arguments in Austin — at least in the appeals that involved Texas lawyers representing parties on each side. “So I simply looked down the list of cases and picked up the phone and called the lawyers,” Higginbotham said. “I already had the time blocked out.” King said the 5th Circuit plans to re-open for regular business on Sept. 14 in Houston. In the meantime, the 5th Circuit extended filing deadlines. And the court instructed lawyers not to send any filings to the New Orleans courthouse. MINOR PROBLEMS New Orleans has a history of surviving natural disasters. One of them, 1965′s Hurricane Betsy, destroyed a New Orleans high school, forcing the John Minor Wisdom U.S. Court of Appeals Building to be used as a substitute school for five years. And the 5th Circuit judges have planned for something on the order of Katrina for a long time, King said. A week ago, when meteorologists began warning of the storm, court staff started moving some files from the first floor to the second floor in anticipation of flooding. On Aug. 27, the court cancelled its oral argument schedule for the coming week, and staff was told to leave the city for their own safety, King said. “We didn’t want anyone to stay out of a sense of duty, that’s for sure,” King said. “The most important thing in a situation like this is people’s lives. Everything else is secondary.” Don Hunt, a partner in Lubbock’s Mullin, Hoard & Brown, landed in New Orleans on Aug. 27, for an argument in a lending law appeal at the 5th Circuit. It wasn’t until he reached the Lafayette Hotel near the 5th Circuit courthouse that he learned the argument had been cancelled. After attempts to leave the city on Sunday failed — rental cars were impossible to get and cabs were hard to find, he said — Hunt ended up staying at the hotel during the hurricane. The hotel sustained no damage. He even walked over to the 5th Circuit on the morning of Aug. 29, thinking there would be a notice posted about the rescheduling of arguments. The courthouse was deserted but looked like it was in good shape, Hunt said. “There was a lot of metal in the street. Who knows if it came off the 5th Circuit?” Hunt said. “But it seemed to survive the storm pretty well.” But that was before the levees surrounding New Orleans broke and water started to rise in the city on Aug. 30. Hunt and an associate with his firm, Larry Doss, convinced the owner of the hotel that morning to let them join a caravan of four cars carrying the owner’s family out of the submerged city. Hunt and Doss made it to Baton Rouge, went to the airport and were back in Lubbock by 7:15 p.m. “It was through the kindness of people, asking and extending. That’s all,” Hunt said of his escape from New Orleans. “We had enough sense to get out when we needed to.” THREE JUDGES The jurisdiction of the 5th Circuit includes Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi. The judges are well aware that it’s best to get out of the city in a hurry when a serious storm threatens. That was the case about a year ago when Hurricane Ivan hit New Orleans, flooding much of the city during a week all of the 5th Circuit judges were in town to hear an en banc argument, King said. Some of the judges were stuck in New Orleans as the city was evacuated while others just barely made it out of the city. “We waited too long to leave,” King said. “We learned that you have to make the decision to leave 72 hours before landfall. Otherwise, you can’t get out.” Higginbotham remembers that trying to evacuate New Orleans during Hurricane Ivan was a nightmare. Traffic was backed up so badly that the cab he rode in overheated. He hailed another cab and made it to the Louis Armstrong New Orleans International Airport just in time for the last flight out.

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