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After Katrina: Lawyers and Courts Struggle to Recover

ABA Journal – February 2006 By Molly McDonough

NO WAY TO PREPARE

Even in Jefferson Parish, which received relatively light damage to its infrastructure, getting back to normal is proving more difficult than many expected.

At the Jefferson Parish courthouse in Gretna, just across the Mississippi River from New Orleans’ handsome Garden District, Clerk of Court Jon A. Gegenheimer points to water stains on his office walls where wind shear blasted around the edges of the glass windows as Katrina passed over the building. The 1958 green-glass-and-steel structure made it through the storm with only minor damage: water on the first floor and fewer than a dozen broken windows. The new modern courthouse next door, where the courts are gradually moving, sustained no visible damage.

Unlike in neighboring Orleans Parish, Jefferson Parish had begun the tedious process of scanning records and creating electronic databases in 1992. About two years ago, clerks started transferring title abstracts and land records to electronic formats, and got as far back as the late 1960s. Electronic records, server backups and microfilm were stored off-site in redundant locations. Gegenheimer’s office began offering e-filing in June. So as soon as electricity was restored to the parish, much of the clerk’s operations were online. Indeed, Gegenheimer reports, there was “virtually no interruption” in services.

Despite those steps, the magnitude of the storm simply overwhelmed the court system. “We have taken a big hit financially,” he says, estimating that income for the court, funded largely through filing fees but also from the parish budget, was down in September and October by $1.3 million from the $17 million expected for the year. The courthouse was unable to accept in-office filings for six weeks.

“The whole month of September, this place was virtually a ghost town,” Gegenheimer says. But he didn’t resort to layoffs. He avoided handing out pink slips in part because 40 members of his support staff were displaced by the storm and didn’t return to work. Also, for the first time ever, he required employees to contribute 20 percent of the cost of their health insurance.

Gegenheimer knows that if the economy doesn’t revive, his community may be in real trouble. He is hopeful he will get FEMA grants or loans to relieve some of the financial pressures.

Yet even government assistance won’t help get jury trials, especially for criminal cases, back under way in Gretna. Like New Orleans, though to a lesser extreme, Jefferson Parish needs to have not only a population from which to pull a jury, but also witnesses, defendants and their lawyers in court to resume trials.

By the beginning of this year, most of the 480,000 people who lived in Jefferson Parish before Katrina were expected to have returned. In late 2005 Gegenheimer sent out jury service notices, though he nearly doubled the call from 600 to 1,200 notices in hopes of pulling 120 residents for duty.

Gegenheimer says that by the end of December, the clerk’s office was about 85 percent operational. “In another six months, I think we’ll be back in full operation,” he says. “Then we face the next hurricane season beginning June 1.”

Meanwhile, witnesses, victims and defendants who aren’t in jail were scattered across the U.S. And though FEMA promises to pay for witnesses to return for trials, the tricky part is locating them. Courts have established toll-free numbers for witnesses and defendants to call in.

Jefferson Parish District Attorney Paul Connick Jr., whose office had a skeleton crew running within four days of Katrina, has begun to identify and prepare at least 50 cases for trial and to reset court dates postponed because of the storm. As cases are readied, the idea is that criminal defendants who were moved to detention facilities outside of the region will return to the Gretna jail.

By November, the jail was ready to accept detainees, but as of late December the facility, which can house 1,300 inmates, was empty. Why? Because in order to hold detainees, it needs a contract with a local hospital. For most jails in the area, that was the now-shuttered Charity Hospital, which maintained a separate and secure ward for prisoners. A proposal to decentralize indigent and prisoner care from a single hospital system to local and regional hospitals scattered throughout the parishes is now being explored.

Meanwhile, Connick’s office has been busy with new cases—more than 270 looting cases alone—and cleaning house by getting rid of old cases that should have been dismissed long ago. It also has been asked to assist the state attorney general in dealing with the huge influx of habeas claims.

“You plod through it, do what you are able to do,” Connick says. But he also feels a sense of urgency to get the courts functioning again.

“Without the criminal justice system, no matter what you do, you’re going to have total chaos,” Connick says. “You have to have law and order.” That’s why he and so many other prosecutors, judges, lawyers and court system employees have been dedicated to the rebuilding effort.

Just after the storm, Connick was on a ride-along with the police, and he recalls how eerie it was in New Orleans. There were no lights in the city as helicopters, filled mainly by news crews with spotlights, buzzed overhead.

“It was just creepy driving through the French Quarter,” he says. He had a feeling that the “bad guys” could easily take advantage of the situation, knowing there were no courts and that the police wouldn’t be able to handle them. He wanted to be sure would-be criminals got the message that they couldn’t take over.

“That’s why it was important for us to raise the flag on top of our building so we could say, ‘We’re ready to go,’ ” Connick says.

©2006 ABA Journal

 

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