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As meteorologists and the rest of Texas guesses where Hurricane Rita and its monster winds will land, the courts and legal community in Corpus Christi, Galveston and Houston have evacuated and headed north. Across South Texas, federal, state and county courts have closed. Law offices have shut down. Even federal prisoners have been packed up and sent to points north. The 5th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, which temporarily relocated to Houston late last month after Hurricane Katrina forced the judges out of New Orleans, announced on its Web site on Wednesday that it would be closed Thursday and today because of Hurricane Rita. The 5th Circuit still plans to hold arguments in Austin and Plano the week of Sept. 26. Eugenio Diaz, the assistant chief deputy of the U.S. Marshals Service in the Southern District of Texas, says his staff has worked around the clock since Wednesday, moving some 200 federal detainees from a Corpus Christi facility to detention centers managed by private contractors in Del Rio and San Antonio. “We’re not even considering the expense of this operation,” says Diaz. “We’d rather have it done in advance even if the hurricane doesn’t have an effect. We don’t want to be sorry afterward.” Diaz says the Southern District’s marshals service has temporarily moved its command center from Houston to McAllen. The marshals service office is not, however, moving the more than 800 detainees housed in the Federal Detention Center in Houston, Diaz says. He notes that the Houston facility was designed to withstand a hurricane and therefore the staff and detainees have not been evacuated. Eddie Leandro, the deputy clerk in the McAllen division of the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of Texas, says the Galveston division has been closed since noon Wednesday. Leandro says the Corpus Christi division closed Thursday morning. At the Houston division of the Southern District, Leandro says, a skeleton crew remains, but he expected the division to close on Sept. 22. All federal court cases scheduled for the later part of this week have been rescheduled in those divisions, Leandro says. At state and county courthouses, operations have also ceased. The Web site for Houston’s 1st Court of Appeals says the court closed at 5 p.m. on Wednesday, and will “remain closed until 8 a.m. on Monday Sept. 26, 2005. … Any deadline in any civil or criminal appeal or original proceeding that falls on Sept. 21, 22, 23 or 26 … is suspended and extended to the greater of (1) Tuesday Sept. 27, 2005, or (2) three business days.” Houston’s 14th Court of Appeals also closed Wednesday and will “remain closed until after the passage of Hurricane Rita. No ‘late filing’ services will be available in the interim. However, filing deadlines will be extended to permit timely filing after the court reopens. In the event of an emergency, please contact the next nearest court of appeals,” its Web site reads. At the Galveston County Courthouse, a prerecorded message says all county operations have stopped. For those planning on serving their sentences in the county jail this weekend, the prerecorded message warns: “Do not show up. You’ll serve it later.” Many clients attempting to reach their attorneys in Galveston or Corpus Christi will hear prerecorded messages announcing the offices are closed. Many of the recordings — such as the one at Corpus Christi’s Bargas & Rodriguez — optimistically suggest that everything will be back to normal soon. “We’re closed until Monday. Thank you. And please be careful,” the voice on Bargas & Rodriguez’s message says. The Watts Law Firm evacuated its Corpus Christi and Houston offices. But it did not let the disruptions stop the firm’s lawyers’ preparations for trials that start Monday. Michael M. Guerra, a member of the Watts Law Firm’s Edinburg office, says despite the hurricane evacuation, three trial teams previously located in the firm’s Houston and Corpus Christi offices continue to prepare for “very complicated products liability cases.” The trials in those cases are scheduled to start Monday in state courts in Edinburg, Brownsville and San Antonio, Guerra says. Starting Wednesday, Guerra says, the firm began relocating staff members and trial files from the Corpus and Houston offices to the Edinburg and San Antonio offices. “We didn’t lose much work time,” Guerra says. But some 80 boxes of files were transferred to the Edinburg and San Antonio offices, as well as some 30 lawyers and support staff. Guerra says the firm also hired temporary clerical and paralegal help in San Antonio and Edinburg to assist the trial teams. Mikal Watts, the firm’s founder, earlier this week issued direct deposits of paychecks ahead of schedule so everyone would have cash on hand for the evacuations, Guerra says. As reports came in late Thursday that Hurricane Rita might move in the direction of Beaumont, Karl Rupp, an associate with the Dallas office of Provost Umphrey, breathed a little easier, knowing the firm had closed its Beaumont office Wednesday. The closing has caused inconveniences, even for Provost’s Dallas lawyers, Rupp says, adding that the firm took down its servers in Beaumont to protect them. As of press time, Rupp had not been able to contact his colleagues from Beaumont, not even the firm’s founder, noted plaintiffs attorney Walter Umphrey. “They must all be on the road,” Rupp says. As Texas lawyers evacuated the Gulf Coast area, Dallas Bar Association staff members tried to contact their counterparts in Houston on Thursday to offer help, but they had trouble getting through by telephone, says DBA executive director Cathy Maher. She says the DBA knows of some 250 empty offices in the Dallas area that are available for lawyers fleeing from Hurricane Rita. Roughly 70 firms originally donated the offices for lawyers displaced by Hurricane Katrina, but the space has gone unoccupied, Maher says. State Bar of Texas spokeswoman Kelley Jones King says, “Thankfully, we already have our hot line for hurricane evacuees up and running.” The State Bar’s Legal Disaster Hot Line — (800) 504-7030 — has been offering Katrina evacuees a pathway to pro bono advice on storm-related matters, such as disagreements with landlords. King says the State Bar will simply change the message on the hot line and make it available to Rita evacuees as well. As of press time, most of the State Bar’s board members were in Amarillo for a meeting. Notes King, “We are all trying to figure out how we are going to get out of here.” Texas Lawyer senior reporter John Council contributed to this article.

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