On Sept. 11, 2001, commuters streamed into Manhattan under a clear-blue late-summer sky. By the end of the day, a pall of acrid, dark smoke hovered over downtown.
Ten years later, the toxic cloud has long since lifted, and new skyscrapers are under construction at “Ground Zero” to replace the iconic Twin Towers that were destroyed by the terrorist attacks. But the impact of the attacks still lingers on how lawyers do business and courts dispense justice.
Starting on page 7 of the print edition, the Law Journal offers a special section on “9/11 and the Law.” It includes a detailed timeline of the still unfolding developments spawned by the crisis and essays about how it has changed attorneys’ practices and the system in which they operate.
The legal community shared in full measure the tragedy of 9/11. More than 1,300 attorneys had registered the World Trade Center as their business address.
Three attorneys, two staff and a project manager at the Trade Center office of Harris Beach and a staffer at Sidley Austin were among the 2,753 people killed.
Also lost were three court officers who rushed into the maelstrom from nearby courthouses to rescue casualties. Another rescuer, a partner from Holland & Knight who was a volunteer firefighter in Long Island, also perished.
And a civil rights lawyer at the U.S. Department of Education who worked a block from the Twin Towers died five months later from the effects of inhaling dust.
State court administrators estimated that 14,000 lawyers with offices in the frozen zone of lower Manhattan were displaced, some without access to offices or files.
Attorneys from throughout the city mobilized to offer help to their colleagues and assistance to family members of the victims.
Resisting what then Chief Judge Judith S. Kaye called “the inclination to postpone, to cancel, to adjourn our scheduled activities,” state court workers pushed past a “very deep” sadness, installed 600 new phones over the weekend and were back on the job by Monday, Sept. 17. Federal courts likewise soon were back in business.
Within weeks or months of the attacks, many firms and the courts were back to something resembling business as usual. Only new and sometimes onerous security precautions hinted at the attacks that had sent the legal community, along with all New Yorkers, reeling.
But what was happening inside the courtrooms was anything but normal. Only last year did a federal judge approve a settlement of a lawsuit brought by more than 10,000 participants in the Ground Zero cleanup. And a trial is scheduled to start soon on airline liability for the 9/11 attacks.
After 9/11, the federal government launched a “war on terror” that as of Wednesday has claimed the lives of 3,480 soldiers in Iraq and 1,647 killed in Afghanistan. With this effort new terms such as “enemy combatant” entered the legal lexicon, and judges—New Yorkers among them—labored to strike a balance between security and civil liberties.
Defense attorneys worry that the courts have been too willing to defer to a government at war, to sacrifice our freedoms for safety,
One of our essayists, Christopher Dunn of the New York Civil Liberties Union, says that “in our post-9/11 litigation, I regularly have been confronted with wholly reasonable judges who nonetheless are prepared to defer almost unquestioningly to law-enforcement officials and to distort or ignore well-established doctrine and precedent. In addition, in many of our cases the courts have embraced a level of secrecy that is unprecedented in my 25 years of practice.”
But, Mr. Dunn adds, “with the intensity of government response to 9/11 having lessened over the years, there may be a chance now to find a better balance between valid national security concerns and civil liberties.”
Overall, in discussing the impact of 9/11, many commentators use the word “resilience” to describe the legal system’s response to an unprecedented challenge.
“It is a testament to the resilience of our democratic values that the courts have responded to the new realities of a post-9/11 world by enhancing security and emergency preparedness while remaining open and accessible to litigants and the public we serve,” says Chief Judge Jonathan Lippman.
“In my mind, it is a great comfort that our courthouses—like our fire and police stations, schools and public halls—are home to an institution far more difficult to topple than any building,” says Eastern District Chief Judge Carol Bagley Amon.